How Gordon Parks Documented Racism In America

The photographer’s A Man Becomes Invisible and Segregation Story series are on view at the Weinstein Gallery in Minnesota.

While on assignment for Life, Gordon Parks covered the chilling, brutal truth of racial and economic inequality in America. He was the magazine’s first black staff photographer, and he shot his share of entertainers and celebrities. But his socially driven documentary work was the best, like a series about an impoverished family in New York and a photo essay on a Harlem gang leader.


Two of Parks’s most celebrated photo essays—A Man Becomes Invisible (1952) and Segregation Story (1956)—are now on view at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The context of each project is different. In one, you have New York City, staged shots, black-and-white film, and a collaboration with writer Ralph Ellison for A Man Becomes Invisible. In the other, you have the rural South, color film, and a narrative about a multi-generational family. Together they show how Parks could tell a deeply moving story about marginalization in America.

Untitled, Mobile, Alabama, 1956

Parks’s work is enjoying something of a resurgence recently, with a forthcoming exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago and an accompanying catalog from the German publisher Steidel. The Getty is also planning a Parks exhibition in 2017. It couldn’t come at a better time.

Leslie Hammons, director of the Weinstein Gallery, believes that Segregation Story is especially relevant today in the context of rampant police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. For the series, Parks followed members of an extended family as they went about their routines in Alabama.

“What makes them so wonderful and revolutionary is they’re just so simple—they’re humbling pictures,” Hammons says, noting that the modern prints were only made possible after a trove of negatives was discovered a couple years ago. “By capturing the everyday, Parks removes the ‘other’ aspect. Usually when you think about the segregated South in photographs, you’re seeing riots and parades and black-and-white images. Because Parks shot in color, there’s an automatic relevancy, and it doesn’t immediately read as the past.”

Take a look at some of Parks’s photographs in the slide show above.

All Photos: © Gordon Parks/Courtesy The Gordon Parks Foundation

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.