As an African American documentary photographer working for Life magazine in the 1950’s Deep South, Gordon Parks forged a new path for civil rights photography. Atlanta’s High Museum of Art’s exhibition, Gordon Parks: Segregation Story, features over forty color photographs the artist made of the Thornton family in Mobile, Alabama.
Parks’s photo-essay was originally featured in Life magazine following several segregation-themed issues. The Thornton family is described as “one Negro family,” ordinary in every way, with the exception of skin color. In the essay, Parks attempts to show both the implicit and explicit limits placed on the Thorntons because of their blackness. The potency of Parks’s essay is in his use of color photography which, combined with well-written text, creates a window into the troubles the Thorntons’ face.
The decision to use color photography sets Parks apart compared with other civil rights photographers who chose to use black and white images to draw attention to the dichotomy of the situations the photos represent. Parks’s choice of color, therefore, resembles commercial photography more than the fine art black and white prints. These images read along the lines of advertisements for the Thorntons’ outsider status within their Alabama town. From bright neon signs reading “COLORED ENTRANCE” to shiny, white mannequins staring in the opposite direction of the Thorntons’ black granddaughter, viewers are struck by the familiarity of the images without recognizing a specific source. For contemporary viewers, Parks’s coloration and the images’ lack of contrast are reminiscent of trends in film and photography that capitalize on faded images to give a sense of time-withstood importance.
The style allows the content to flow seamlessly to viewers, as they begin to examine the sad details of the Thorntons’ lives. The discrimination displayed is problematized further as viewers make connections between Parks’s images of everyday life and other civil rights photography. Boys playing in trees become reminders of the men who have died and will die hanging in lynchings, leaving viewers to wonder what could possibly be the answer to such hatred. The exhibit explains that after the story was published, Life magazine provided the Thorntons with funds to relocate outside of Alabama, as the article made life more dangerous for their family.
While relocating may have provided a temporary answer for the Thorntons, I could not help but wonder if their descendants in the North became the victims of police brutality and systemic injustice. I wonder if the prayers Parks captured in the Thorntons’ home church are still being prayed today, and I wonder when they will be answered. The exhibit will be on display until June 21. Tickets to the High Museum are $16.50 for students, and are half price after 4:00 p.m.