New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 28 June 25 to July 1, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

A View from the Inside
Gordon Parks
A Harlem Family 1967
John D. Roberts

Inspired by the work of documentary photographers working for the Farm Security Administration, Gordon Parks first picked up a camera of his own in 1938. Self taught, he moved from his native Kansas to pursue a career in fashion and advertising photography at a department store in St. Paul, Minnesota. On the advice of a friend, he moved to the south side of Chicago and began to nurture the narrative style that would come to define him as an artist years later. He was granted a fellowship with the FSA in 1942 – an opportunity that would help him to become the first African-American staff photographer for LIFE Magazine. In his more than twenty years with LIFE he would produce his most significant works.

In the book, A Harlem Family 1967, Parks chronicles the troubled day to day existence of the Fontenelle family. Containing 87 black and white images, the book accompanies the current show of the same name at the Studio Museum of Harlem on 125th street, just blocks from where the Fontenelle family was photographed 45 years ago. This fine book also contains full scans of the original LIFE Magazine story in which these images were first made public.

The apartment Bessie and Norman Fontenelle share with eight of their ten children costs them $70 per month, and Norman has just been let go from his job as a railway section hand. Times are tough. Norman spends his days going out looking for work, sinking into an alcohol induced depression at night that often leads him to put his hands on both Bessie and the children. While we never see real evidence of the violence in the house until the book's final images, an unshakable feeling of dread runs through the black and white frames.

In Park's capable hands the apartment becomes just as much a character as the Fontenelles – its uninhabited images some of the most evocative in the book. It is when the viewer is alone in this space that the Fontenelles seem closest. The eerie emptiness of these lived-in rooms somehow makes them more accessible to an outsider; in their absence, the Fontenelles' circumstances most powerfully understood.

The reality of the Fontenelles' hardship becomes evident in photos of their daily life: Rosie doing the laundry in a small bathroom, Norman using rags to keep the cold from coming in through poorly insulated windows, the children trying their best to do their homework while fully dressed underneath blankets. In one particularly striking image, Kenneth rests his head in his mother's lap as the two warm one another in front of an open conventional oven.

With her husband Norman mostly engulfed in shadows and dark places, Bessie's presence is by far the most memorable within the series, functioning as the glue that barely holds the family together. The image of Bessie and her estranged son Harry at a drug rehabilitation center outside of the city is perhaps only bright spot in the whole series. Parks, having driven Bessie there himself, takes us through their awkward exchange, his images conveying a happiness that transcends the rubble in which they were constructed.

The Fontenelles' tale concludes with an argument on a cold night with Parks finding 13 year old Norman Jr. warming his hands over a trash can fire after being thrown out by his father. Parks returns the next day to find a brutally beaten Bessie in bed with her youngest son Richard. “I just can't take it no more. It's too much for anybody to bear.” In the moments after being attacked by her husband, she added sugar and honey to a pot of boiling water and poured it onto his face. Parks notes that Norman Jr., when taken to see his father in the hospital, is surprisingly sympathetic toward the man he'd so struggled to love, feeling genuinely sorry for him. But his father offered no explanation: “I just don't know why.”

It is hard not to leave this work feeling a little lost. Absolutely no information is offered to explain what might happen to the Fontenelles as they return to their lives once outside of Parks' frames. What happened to the children as they grew older? The viewer is intentionally left to deal with this story's open-endedness, perhaps to determine for himself the fate of families like the Fontenelles. The story became a call to action across all of America's cities in the late 1960's. Using his “camera as a weapon,” Parks produced an indictment. Perhaps Parks meant not only to expose the minorities' broken ghettos, but to force the majority to take responsibility for them.


A Harlem Family 1967 by Gordon Parks.

Published by Steidl 2013

ISBN 978-3869306025

Gordon Parks
A Harlem Family 1967

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