The Visual Language of Gordon Parks

The Gordon Parks exhibit, on view now at Harvard’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, is an exceptional body of work. The collection, that of Alicia Keys and Kasseem Dean (also known as Swizz Beatz), gives an overview of many different areas of Park’s work, and lets the eloquence of his imagery shine.

Gordon Parks visual story
Left to right: Consulting curator Maurice Berger, Radcliffe Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Alicia Keys, Swizz Beats, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. (Photograph from the Harvard Gazette)

The Cooper Gallery deserves praise for the show is beautifully lit, and curated in a manner that draws the viewer through the exhibit, leaving one eager to both linger in front of each image and to see more at the same time.

The first photograph seen when arriving is a reimagined “American Gothic” entitled “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.” Cleaning woman Ella Watson imitates the iconic painting as she stands holding a broom and a mop rather than a pitchfork, with an American flag behind her rather than buildings.

Parks’ image depicts Watson on her own; she is both the masculine and feminine energy in this image: she wears glasses and stares unabashedly at the artist with her mouth grimly set, like the male figure in the original American Gothic. Yet, Watson is also in feminine attire with her slim waist on display, and details such as she sleeves of her dress. Parks melds both male and female into one persona and has her stand beneath the American flag, rather than in front of a traditional farmhouse and barn.

Her placement in front of the flag, her head is perfectly bisecting it, seems to imply that Parks wished to make a strong statement about either the working class, persons of color or perhaps both. Parks gives Watson a placement of importance, clearly well thought-out and suggests value the artist places on Watson’s contribution.


As one moves further into the exhibition, one is confronted over and over again, either with images making reference to art (such as above), literature (like his Invisible Man series based on Ralph Ellison’s book) or to current events of the time. All provide fodder for visually stunning and thought-provoking images.


Given the fact that Ella Watson’s hands remained invisible in the reimagining of American Gothic, it’s ironic to note that the first series of works in this show seem to focus on hands. Fingers point, hands reach out or they clutch objects, and we the viewers and left to interpret meaning.

In the image below, a hand reaches out from a pool of water, seemingly drowning. the fingers and arm stretch out of a rippling reflection – searching for assistance. The photograph’s grey-green cast contributes to this sinister moment with its otherworldly palette. The viewer is left with just this one piece of the story – just one frame in what was so a much longer tale. It can leave one short of breath.

Gordon Parks visual story
Gordon Parks, Untitled.
New York, New York. 1957
Archival Pigment Print

A more subtle hand gesture, yet again unsettling, awaits just across from it: a child is presented with two baby dolls in two adult hands: one black and one white. He gestures subtly to the white one, seemingly selecting it. This image was from “Doll Test” where a psychologist was studying internalized racism. Parks eloquently captures this significant and heartbreaking moment where a black child chooses a white doll rather than a black one, in a single photograph.

Gordon Parks visual story

A piece from Park’s Life series “The Atmosphere of Crime” series shows another eloquent hand; one that elegantly dangles a cigarette through prison bars. Yet, his other hand grips the bars tightly.

The timeless nature of this image, simple elegant hands, blocks of color, and a shadow slanting across the wall make it seem like it could almost be a photograph. It could be an image from any age: as much from 70 years ago as from today.

Gordon Parks visual story

To delve deeper into the sociological side of this image, the disproportionate number of people of color who are incarcerated, even today make this piece timeless.

For context, find the tables below. While, dear reader, you probably didn’t need me to point out that there was an imbalance between the black population as a portion of the percentage incarcerated, nor that this is a long-standing problem (dating back to Park’s day), these figures do help to clearly illustrate the starkness of this disparity.

Gordon Parks visual story
“Incarceration in the United States” Wikipedia
Gordon Parks visual story
Race of Prisoners Admitted to State and Federal Institutions, 1926-86
By Patrick A. Langan, Ph.D.

Here we are, almost seventy years after many of the photographs were taken any yet it feels as though some of them could have been taken yesterday: the same issues remain and the imagery is timeless in its beauty.

Certainly, “timeless” is an adjective that cannot be applied to all of Park’s work. He has recorded history with his lens as well: the portraits he has taken give glimpses of both powerful and unguarded moments amongst historical icons. It’s a delight to see such individuals such as Muhammad Ali recorded at the height of his career in rich black and white photographs. Malcolm X, photographed emerging from darkness while he speaks, is also another inspired piece.

Gordon Parks visual story
A selection of photographs devoted to Muhammad Ali
Gordon Parks visual story
Malcolm X

While Park’s portraits of celebrities are wonderful, personally I find the works that focus on less well-known individuals is where Park’s artistic eye really shows through.

Gordon Parks visual story

Park’s focus on social justice and recording the Jim Crow era in the South is both a historical artifact and an example of excellence in photography. These photographs feature the every person living their life, and allow us all to project ourselves into their reality.

They are also more accessible to a younger audience in terms of helping them to grasp the injustices of the Jim Crow era – and sharing artwork with a younger generation – and particularly political and socially conscious artwork is something incredibly important. The second Parks blog post (coming soon) will focus on these photographs, and also how to share them with children.