Art

FEATURE: Gordon Parks & Roy DeCarava – The Dualism between two great Black Photographers

September 10, 2015
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Gordon Parks (Nov. 30, 1912-March 7, 2006) & Roy DeCarava (Dec. 19, 1919- Oct 27, 2009) shared a time during 20th century photography when racism was legal, overt & as traditional as American baseball & apple-pie. Today, we as a modern society are still dealing with the entities that has political-correctness on one side & racism (indirectly & directly) on the other side. Aside from the unrestricted racial discrimination that could have dented the self-confidence & ambitions of many Black photographers, during their photography days, there is a historical photographic importance within Parks & DeCarava’s careers that stipulated two different photographic eyes & paths to their successes & respects which should not be ignored.

By Shaun La, AFROPUNK Contributor

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Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006), Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956

These two great photographers met an important dividing line that would keep these two away from a friendship on any level—which was always linked to DeCarava’s opinion that Parks had enough power to bring attention to the fact that he was the only Black photojournalist at the well-respected LIFE Magazine & that if Parks spoke up about this racial discrimination like he was doing, then the impact for addressing a racist system in the mainstream publishing world would be strongly heard & felt. This thick division between these two great photographers did not spill into either one of them publicly disrespecting or criticizing each other work, but the distance based off of their disagreement on how to approach & fight a racist mainstream media world for equality would keep them from being friends throughout both of their lifetimes. 

“Self Portrait, Reflection, 1949″ – Roy DeCarava


Individuality

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Parks would find acclaim & spheres of fame with LIFE Magazine—a magazine that afforded him the platform to carry photography essays that were unflinching in showing America’s societal issues with pieces titled, Harlem Gang Leader (1948) to traveling internationally with his camera by visually capturing Brazil’s abject dearth inside of the photo-essay, Freedom’s Faithful Foe: Poverty (1961). Before LIFE magazine, Parks became the 1st Black photographer at American VOGUE & Glamour magazines for Condé Nast in the 1940’s, which was prior to the Civil-Rights Movement in America gaining a collective with traction for stepping up to racial inequalities on a massive scale. He made progress in commercial fashion photography with American VOGUE & Glamour; however ahead of his progress, he had to overcome the hardcore ignorance from Hearst Corporation(Condé Nast’s competitor) & their policy of not hiring Blacks (Harpers Bazaar’s art-director, Alexey Brodovitch praised Parks photographic portfolio but hit him with the rejection by declaring these words, “This magazine is owned by the Hearst Corporation, and it doesn’t hire Negroes for anything; not even for sweeping floors”).

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DeCarava flourished as a photographer with mainstream magazines, such as Newsweek & Sports Illustrated. His photography visually captured, & expounded on a metaphysical level by asking the observer to see more than just the visual judgement that goes on in a photograph. It could be John Coltrane making Jazz with his saxophone standing in front of DeCarva’s lens or it could be a black-and-white photograph from the 1960’s, visually giving a housing tenement sitting in Harlem a chance to remind us of its history on each & every last brick which held up a wall that witnessed a cultural Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s. It was a Harlem that DeCarava was a large part of, a Harlem that conjoined him & Langston Hughes into a zone needed to create the masterpiece book-work, “Sweet Flypaper of Life.” What DeCarava did with his photography was to open up a realm that something worthwhile was going on within the frame of his photographs. .

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Their divisions that came right back to the same core of equality
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One could say, why would the issue about fighting against racism divide two successful photographers from finding a basis of agreeing that they both wanted to defeat racism in a mainstream photography world? The Civil Rights Movement would frequently meet different philosophies executed by different organizations with the mutual goal of wanting the United States government to acknowledge Blacks as equal citizens who deserved their civil rights, & the concept of true freedom may have been subjective to some individuals & organizations, but Blacks fighting for their rights in America during Parks & DeCarava’s photography years were obvious & objective. At times, the various platforms would be a commonality within these different organizations; however, there were times when platforms & tactics were vastly dissimilar & this space of dissimilarities sat in the middle of Parks & DeCarava. Within a modern understanding, it could be mentally cohesive to remember what we were taught about when it come down to attaching a visual mindset for remembering Black Americans boycotting buses & restaurants. Yet there was a lesser known proponent in the Civil Rights Movement that did question a racist media hiring practices along with protesting against the mainstream worlds that had the halves of art & entertainment being intolerant to Black writers, photographers, & artists who were talented & professional.

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When you study these two prolific photographers bodies of work, you will see a profound visual freedom that conveyed thoughts being provoked & an unenclosed appreciation to group them together as powerful photographers, & not just the 1st Black photographers to achieve mainstream success with major publications. Parks & DeCarava’s photography was professional, & consistently responsive to “The Moment.”

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DeCarava approached photography from a very strict method. His convictions about fighting for racial equality was just as strict as his photographic skills, because he stood up for his beliefs that Blacks should being given a chance to be hired & to display their professional abilities behind the lens by being deeply involved with the Committee to End Discrimination Against Black Photographers.

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Parks was not an organizer as DeCarava was when it came to forming an organization to speaking up about the inequalities that would often put Black photographers into rarely being hired for mainstream photojournalism assignments, but his heavy & calculated blows to the wall of racism in America cannot go unnoticed. His close-relationship with Malcolm X. (he would become god-father to his daughter Quibila Shabazz) would be a springboard for allowing him to meet Elijah Muhammad, who granted Parks the access that would be beneficial when it came to him composing a powerful photo-essay about the Nation of Islam for LIFE magazine in 1963; whereas, before Parks presence entered LIFE magazine, the Nation of Islam was adamant about not allowing a white owned & controlled publication to have a view into their world. In the 1970’s, Parks would be a key component in helping to get ESSENCE magazine up & steamrolling into the publication world, which would form a doorway for Black photographers, writers, models, & editors to be a part of the mainstream & commercial magazine world..

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Two Deep Legacies

Overall, there is a fine-arts sentiment that Parks & DeCarava shared as well. Gallery owner & curator Helen Gee gave some of Parks photographic prints a portion of wall space inside of her Limelight Gallery in Greenwich Village during the late 1950’s, a time where white Americans & Europeans were controlling, consuming & populating the art market for photography. DeCarava had the acumen with following the notion that Photography was an art-form & he would put his time with energy into opening up A Photographer’s Gallery on the Upper-West side of Manhattan; furthermore, he would earn the prestigious Guggenheim grant.

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Parks & DeCarava had their fundamental differences on how to fight back against racism but their differences did not deny their individual accomplishments, & on a greater scale, the agreement within their legacies would be this: Black photographers can be professional, talented & momentous artists that could make it in the mainstream world, or open up independent outlets that provided their Photographic Eyes to be fearsome.

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Gordon Parks: http://www.gordonparksfoundation.org/

Roy DeCarava: http://www.decarava.org

* Shaun La’s official website: http://www.shaunarts.com

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