Gordon Parks used his camera as a weapon for political change – ARTnews.com


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Tree, the pioneering blaxploitation film directed by Gordon Parks, was released fifty years ago. To commemorate the anniversary, the Howard Greenberg Gallery organized an exhibition of photographs of Parks from 1948 to 1967 which allegedly illustrate a “cinematic approach” to the medium and thus predict the artist’s successful crossover. This conceptual framework is slippery – after all, the appearance of mainstream cinema has changed dramatically during this period – but the curatorial gesture is productive nonetheless. Some purists may prefer to keep the artist’s beautifully composed and carefully printed documentary photographs, many of which were created to order for Life magazine, separate from his subsequent stay in popular entertainment. This spectacle asks, at least in theory, what one could learn by reassessing the canonical in relation to the mass culture.

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The production of Tree is rightly seen as a turning point in the struggle for the portrayal of blacks in mainstream American cinema. However, all does not hold up well in the film itself in 2021. Its male characters are knowingly stereotypical; his females are summarily objectified. The plot, too, has a cardboard quality. Based on a novel by former criminal journalist Ernest Tidyman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hollywood screenwriter John DF Black, Tree follows the titular private investigator as he maneuvers to recover the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem crime boss from rival Italian Mafiosi, teaming up with the head of an underground black nationalist organization in the process. The result comes across as opportunistic, alluding to the racial conflicts and politics of the time without offering much insight.

What remains most vital about Tree is his portrayal of New York City during the Nixon era, a racially layered terrain that Parks’ cinema helps develop as a character in its own right. In extended footage of the first half of the film, we simply watch the protagonist make their way through the crowd on Forty-second Street or watch the city lights change shape through the window of a heading car. towards the city center. These interstitial moments in the otherwise plot-driven narrative highlight the director’s cinematic leanings while lending crucial texture and uniqueness to Shaft’s world. In one particularly memorable shot, the detective walks with cheeky confidence into the moving traffic, bravely berating the angered taxi drivers he has forced to stop. (The similarity of his reaction to Dustin Hoffman’s famous explosion in Midnight Cowboy two years earlier, it is striking; Hugh A. Robertson, a pioneering noir film editor, worked on both projects.) This act of bravado takes on added meaning a few scenes later, when he successfully hails a cab, only to see it dash for the ‘before and take a white client instead. . Through moments like these, the film makes a virtue of the generic quality of the character of Shaft by turning our attention to the poignant nature of the archetype he represents. In a city that routinely hinders the basic mobility of black men, the very idea of ​​a black detective, practicing a profession fundamentally based on access to spaces where one might not be allowed, is indeed taking its toll. larger than life proportions.

Two framed photographs show silhouettes, one wearing a hat with his hands raised and the other carrying a gun, with amber light sources in the dark background.

View from ‘Gordon Parks: A Choice of Weapons’, 2021, at the Howard Greenberg Gallery, showing Drug Research, Chicago, Illinois and Crime suspect with gun, Chicago, Illinois, both in 1957.
Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery

The photographs exhibited at Howard Greenberg align with Shaft’s world in that they delimit an urban universe bounded by Broadway marquees on one side and Harlem buildings on the other. Beyond the geographical overlap, what links the assembled photographs to the film, or what makes them “cinematographic” in the more general sense, is not obvious. The most obvious candidate for the latter descriptor is a group of sumptuous color photographs that Parks took in 1957 in Chicago for a Life series on “Crime in the United States” In one of them, entitled Crime suspect with gun, Chicago, Illinois, Parks captures only the silhouette of his subject’s shoulder, arm, and gun, framed in a narrow sliver of speckled light escaping from an open door. In another, taken from the backseat of a police car, Parks similarly silhouetted the officer in the front seat against the hazy, glowing orbs of city lights. One thing that makes these photographs cinematic is of course their content, which reflects Hollywood’s long-standing investment in cops and outlaws and, increasingly in the 1960s, urban crime. Another is their dramatic emphasis, the way they guide the viewer’s attention to demarcated figures and certain key attributes – the gun, the patrol car – which in turn point to implicit stories beyond the frame.

However, not all of the works presented work in this quasi-narrative manner. Four striking photographs of a 1963 civil rights protest, for example, are more formally self-reflective than they are dramatically evocative. In these photos, lines of men carry signs with well-written phrases such as “we live in a police state” and “police brutality must end”. In two of the images, Parks aimed his camera in a way that emphasized the serial nature of the signs advancing towards the viewer. With each of these rectangular shots made larger than the previous by perspective distortion, the sequence visually seems to culminate in the photograph of similar proportions that represents them, a abyss effect. Through this imagined equation between the framing image and a procession of protest signs that seem to be receding To infinity, Parks implicitly links the political potential of his medium – he once described his camera as his “choice of weapons” – to its serial reproducibility; its ability to convey the messages of the demonstrators to a larger audience spread over space and time.

The demo scenario evokes a fleeting moment of TreeThe opening montage of in which the protagonist negotiates an actual crowd of picketers protesting against a background check company called Fidelifacts, which had been accused of facilitating discrimination against gay applicants. In the film, this unscripted encounter plays both an exhibition role and a symbolic role, introducing social divisions that manifest in the ensuing narrative with respect not to sexuality but rather to race: in Indeed, at one point, Shaft’s white counterpart in the New York City Police Department feared that the territorial dispute between black and Italian criminal organizations could escalate into all-out race war. But as the end of this example indicates, TreeThe storyline also makes these divisions somewhat fantastical, ensuring that real-world struggles and injustices never transcend the film’s primary imperative to entertain. In this regard, there is a valid distinction to be maintained between Parks’ Hollywood cinema and his more politically direct photojournalistic works. If an analogy can be made between the first and the last, it is less inherent in continuities of “cinematographic” form or content than in the symbolic instantiation by the camera of a wandering and powerfully free gaze – a license to observe and record that the artist himself enjoyed to some extent during his years on Lifeof the payroll, and would later personify through the character of a certain John Shaft, private investigator.

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