How Civil Rights Photographer Gordon Parks Inspired A New Generation Of Artists

50 Years After shows the work of three black female artists for whom Parks led the way.

As protests and discussions about race relations and police brutality continue to play out on a national scale, photography has played an important role in the social justice movement. Perhaps no one has had a bigger influence on this current style of photography than Gordon Parks, the photojournalist known for his documentation of African American life, poverty, and the civil rights movement. Now, a new group show, Fifty Years After: Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas, LaToya Ruby Frazier examines the prominent themes of Parks’s work from a different perspective: that of black women photographers.


“As our year became more and more problematic with all these horrific deaths of black people I wanted to contextualize [the exhibition],” says James Barron, the gallerist who is putting on the show. “I wanted to include Gordon Parks in the show and focus on 50 years after civil rights. Where are we now, 50 years after Gordon Parks opened the door for these women photographers?”

Carrie Mae Weems, Kitchen Table 11.

Barron’s eponymous gallery, located in bucolic Kent, Connecticut, has placed importance on representing women artists, says Barron. Past exhibitions have included the likes of Laurie Simmons, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, and Joan Mitchell. At last year’s KentPresents festival, James Barron gallery hosted a show called August Flowers, which featured the floral works of photographers Mann, Peter Hujar, and Wolfgang Tillman, among the work of other artists. Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, attended the show and suggested that Barron put on a show of black female photographers for this year’s festival.

Energized by the idea, Barron immediately went about procuring the seminal Kitchen Table series by Carrie Mae Weems, one of his favorites. The photographs in Kitchen Table follow Weems, playing the part of a fictional woman, through the course of relationships with her lover, friends, and daughter, all set at a simple kitchen table and below a single hanging lamp. Next Barron approached Mickalene Thomas, known for her exploration of femininity, race, and identity through colorful, provocative paintings modeled in a ’70s blaxploitation-style. Finally, he approached 35-year-old LaToya Ruby Frazier, who recently won a MacArthur genius grant for her series on the post-industrial rust belt town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, as seen through portraits of her mother and grandmother. The three fit neatly into three generations of black female artists concerned with both identity and the social issues affected by systemic racism.

Mickalene Thomas, Remember Me.

Each of the three artists, Barron says, owe a debt to Gordon Parks, who through his photographs of black lives in the ’50s and ’60s became the most important documentarian of the civil rights movement. Frazier, in an interview with Co.Design earlier this month, named Parks and his relationship with Ralph Ellison as an influence in her latest series on Flint, Michigan, and the aftermath of the water crisis. At an event at the Gordon Parks foundation earlier this year, Barron also heard Frazier mention Gordon Parks’s importance in leading the way for her work. “She said, ‘I owe everything to Gordon Parks because he showed me that you could change the world by showing it through a viewfinder,'” he says.

The idea for adding Parks’s work was to highlight his legacy, but also to put our country’s current movement for racial justice into context. The civil rights movement was 50 years ago, though many of those issues are unfortunately still being brought up today, in particular with the recent police shootings of black men. Though these current events aren’t named explicitly in the show, Barron points to them as the impetus for wanting to highlight the work of Parks and the female photographers for whom he led the way.

Barron says that the exhibition is telling the story of two social trajectories that in his mind have taken the opposite course. “There’s the social history and how the civil rights movement created these liberties and how we stand to lose them,” he says. “In that sense, it’s a downward trajectory. But the other is an art history trajectory and that’s a different story. An exhibition like this with three African American women wouldn’t have happened 30 years ago. It’s miraculous that art is leading the way.”


[All Images: courtesy James Barron gallery]


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.