Jesse’s book review, Segregation Story by Gordon Parks
This review was meant to be released a couple of weeks ago, but like a total dope I lost the images. So Jesse has been really kind and managed to make some more for us. Come and check out this excellent review.
“Here is a mean place….The story he (Parks) did on us is true. The pictures are true, the school is true. The work is true, the home is true. But these people are very, very mad.”
-Allie Lee, an African-American subject in Parks’ Segregation Story who was ran out of her town for her participation in the story.
The truth in this age of photography is anything but relevant…this perhaps is the only major sentiment that has changed since this story of racism. Segregation Story is the complete anthology of Gordon Parks’ monumental indictment on the Jim Crow south for Life magazine.
With this anthology there are two introductions, all the original photos submitted, and a reprint of the original Life editorial as it was in 1956. Really appreciate the complete story than the previous books on Parks (and in what I reviewed with Bare Witness) where you could only get a few of these images out of context mixed in with his other Life essays. And incidentally from what I learned here (and contrary to rumor that Life would pigeon hole him by only assigning him stories that dealt with African Americans) he really only got to do a handful of these race stories. It was just when he did the race stories that they got so much more attention since the photo perspective on Negroes was actually coming from a Negro.
Furthering this authenticity of perspective he was quoted, “it is impossible for me now to photograph a hungry child without remembering the hunger of my own childhood. Time has taught me that it is not enough to look, condemn, or praise-to be just an observer. I must attempt to transcend the limitations of my own experience by sharing, as deeply as possible, the problems of those people I photograph.”
What struck me in seeing all the photos and then the way the story was portrayed…was at how disarmingly grey it all was. The opening image of just the grandparents sitting in their living room staring straight at the camera is serene yet none aggressively confrontational. It puts you right in the home of this family and in turn they simply look back offering simply their existence. With the times most civil rights photography was shot in black and white and focused more on the aggression of the protests.
I think a lot like today in us being desensitized to African American kids killed by the police on social media; in the 50s, America had become desensitized to Negroes being attacked by dogs and beaten by southern whites. If you see enough of these images you can forget that they are human beings who share generally the same experiences and feelings that you do. Africa is another good example, we are used to seeing images of starving or dead black kids, but are affected for instance by the image of the white refugee child dead in the water. Parks seemingly understood this, opted for color and just showed a normal Negro family under their reduced living conditions due to the “separate but equal” law in a way that no human being can simply dismiss.
And this what I mean about the grey, in any argument or debate people take a side and as it gets more heated, one has to dig in and more often that not, become more extreme to win. It is easy to show extreme photos to an America who gave little to no thought about the Negro problem in the south and if you were for segregation it is easy to turn away from extreme images of violence because really who wants to see that anyway. But in showing this grey, it made no accusations but instead attempted to move America toward empathy. With the flow of the photos, their lives were no different than poor southern whites. It isn’t until following them more and beginning to see the dilapidated COLORED ONLY water fountain they have to use, the bus and back door restaurant service windows, and the black kids who aren’t allowed to play in the public park and can only look on that one could fully see the problem with any sort of real empathy.
In my opinion, this replicated King’s philosophy of non-violence that was an attempt to move one’s enemies’ conscious towards compassion. Irony was the south proved to have no conscious escalating the violence as the years went on. But what this essay did achieve was an earlier victory in lieu of the Brown decision. I think as the violence escalated and culminated in the bloody 60s, it become just as important to show images of an Emmett Till or the four girls in Alabama. But this was the power of photography to the times, in revealing the truth and the cruelty of Jim Crow.
In looking at individual photos the one above with the kids is really the perfect metaphor for the African American experience. Young black kids kept on the outside left only looking into a world that is way better than their own. The thing is you can see the American dream and it is there, and the kids will say well you see and you can get it, but they don’t take into account that barrier represented here by the gate, that also serves the composition by running vertical on the frame’s upper third and being dissected by the telephone pole leading our eye down to the tallest girl who is looking in. Our eye beyond the gate is drawn to the red umbrella that is right in the middle of all the joys the black kids will never be able to experience because of their skin color.
Another photo I like (below) is of kids playing in the mud in front of a giant oak tree. Because the roads are unpaved mud collects in the streets and for fun the children indulge in building little mud dams. In the background the houses have began to lean because of their shoddy construction and their location and right in the midground is the giant oak tree.
Due to the weather and its location it has been eroded and more of its roots show with every rain…yet lives on to endure because its roots are strong.
With that said, this is a must have. It is published by Steidl and hovers around the 100 USD mark. His books more recently have been re-released so should be easier than 5 years ago when I was really looking for his photo books. And with a Ferguson or a Baltimore you will see the parallels of the fight for equality from then till now, and resulting sad truths.
Thanks for sharing this important and unforgettable book with us, Jesse. It seems like this is more relevant right now than ever.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
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