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The Gift Of Gordon Parks

By Jo Ann Lewis
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 30, 1998

  Style Showcase


    Gordon Parks With his "American Gothic" over his shoulder, Gordon Parks speaks at the Cororan Gallery. (AP Photo)
Acclaimed photojournalist Gordon Parks – 15th child of a Kansas dirt farmer – has given the Corcoran Gallery of Art one of the largest gifts of photographs the museum has ever received: 227 of his own greatest prints.

Among them are virtually all of the photographs shown in "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks," last fall's widely praised Corcoran retrospective, which is on tour through 2003.

There are also 50 rare vintage images from Parks's early days with the Farm Security Administration in the 1940s (established to record the impact of the Great Depression upon the poor), and poignant photo essays on hunger, poverty, prejudice and violence for Life magazine. It was for Life that he photographed the first black fighter pilots in World War II, the civil rights struggle in the South, and other powerful, often heart-rending stories that made him one of Life's greatest stars during its heyday.

The gift establishes the Gordon Parks Collection Archives at the Corcoran. Taken together with a recent gift Parks, 85, made to the Library of Congress – which included not only photographs but also his films, book manuscripts and musical compositions – it makes Washington the most important center for the study of his life and work.

The Corcoran's excitement over the gift is twofold: For museum Director David Levy, Parks represents not only "one of the greatest of contemporary African American artists" but also a "heroic role model for every American kid." Raised in poverty and amid racism, the gifted, still remarkably unembittered Parks overcame it all, working as a dining car waiter and professional basketball player before picking up a magazine on the train one day and discovering the work of socially concerned photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Given his first photography job by the FSA and, later, the Office of War Information, he subsequently became a fashion photographer for Vogue and then a star photo-essayist for Life.

In between, he produced 15 books, directed the hit 1971 movie "Shaft," and has performed his own piano compositions with the National Symphony Orchestra, among others.

The Corcoran would not put a dollar value to the gift, though a spokesperson said it was worth "millions." In a show of Parks's vintage photographs now on view at Howard Greenberg's SoHo gallery in New York, the prices range from $3,000 to $10,000.

For the Corcoran, however, the gift is priceless, since it serves one of the museum's most pressing current goals. "One of the most significant aspects of the Corcoran's mission is to address the interests of our regional community," says photography curator Philip Brookman. "And one of the most important of those interests is African American art, history and culture."

Reached at his East Side Manhattan apartment yesterday, Parks said, "I am thrilled to be able to share my life and work in this way. I chose the Corcoran because they did a marvelous job of organizing and presenting my retrospective. I have every confidence that my work will remain available to a wide audience through the Corcoran's stewardship of these photographs. Philip Brookman and the staff at the Corcoran know more about my work than anyone else, including me."

The Library of Congress, however, will remain the chief repository of his work, Parks said.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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