We think of nostalgia as a love of the past, but in Greek the word means “an ache to come home”, and history isn’t homely for everyone. And so to an exhibition whose postponement from March, thanks to Covid-19, has made it more timely, not less. Gordon Parks, a black American, chronicled the racial dynamics of his country from the 1940s to the 2000s. His photographs picture the way an “advanced” society can lie to, and about, itself.
Many of them featured in Life magazine, where the late Parks was a staff writer and photographer. The exhibition – Gordon Parks: Part One – at Alison Jacques Gallery, London, is the first solo show of his work in more than 25 years, and includes two series: Segregation in the South (1956) and the later Black Muslims (1963). (Part Two, a series on Muhammad Ali, will follow in September.)
Blown up here as largeish prints, Parks’s photographs are cool and free of drama. Here, for example, is the South of the 1950s – consumerism, an endless boom, the world at Americans’ feet. In Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama (above), a sleek ice-cream parlour is set against the dwindling sun. The posters in the windows are a colourful whirl; they offer “hot dogs”, “banana splits”, “root beer floats”. And there’s a black family, waiting at a hidden hatch, underneath a “Colored” sign.
In Segregation in the South, a quietly eloquent series, Parks plays on his images’ artificiality. Racial division is a societal construct, like a church or a neighbourhood store – and photos are constructed, too. In Parks’s segregated tableaux, children play on a verandah, or eye the lens from a door. You wonder: are we seeing an act? In front of a camera, kids have a special naturalness that they feign if you tell them: “Be yourselves”.
Throughout his career, Parks worked on that chimeric notion of “acting natural”. His most famous image was Government Charwoman (1942), a portrait of a black cleaner in Washington; her pose seems to gesture to American Gothic (1930), Grant Wood’s painting of rustic life. But Ella Watson, Parks’s subject, is holding a droopy mop, and the Stars and Stripes are hanging behind her, as if with irony. You wonder if it’s documentary or satire, but it’s a blend of the two: critique.