Gordon Parks (died 2006) was a celebrated photographer and it is not difficult to understand why. His pictures of a neighbourhood in Alabama in the fifties clearly document the impoverishment and segregation and at the same time they are illuminated by his humanity.
Oddly they remind me of the near perfect paintings by the seventeenth century Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch. Of course the world shown by De Hooch is completely different. The figures in his paintings are modest but prosperous and the paintings are characterised by their serenity. What both artists share though is a crystalline quality, as if they have been looking through a focused lens.
In Parks’ work the ugly signs of segregation are everywhere, The jolly posters proclaiming Butterscotch and Butter Pecan are offset by the labelling of the drinking fountains underneath ‘White Only’ and ‘Coloured Only”. No Whites are shown but we see Black lives constrained by the invisible boundaries of segregation.
Some of the photographs are sad but they are all beautiful. They pin down moments in a vanished world which was happy, at least at times. We can look forward to Part 11 which opens on 11 September and promises to be equally memorable.
Gordon Parks: Part One is at Alison Jacques, 18 Berners Street, London W1T 3LN
until 1 August.