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Howard University acquires landmark collection of Gordon Parks photos

A group of 252 works spanning the influential Black photographer’s long career will be housed at the Washington HBCU’s research center

The 1963 March on Washington. (Gordon Parks/Gordon Parks Foundation)
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At the start of his prolific and influential career, photographer Gordon Parks documented everyday life in D.C., including events and students at Howard University.

Eighty years later, the historically Black university in the heart of the District has acquired one of the most comprehensive collections of Parks’s photographs. The trove of 252 images represents both his artistic achievement and his significance as a documentarian of African American life in the second half of the 20th century. Parks died in 2006 at the age of 93.

The Gordon Parks Legacy Collection will be housed in the university’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, where students and faculty — from history, African American studies and the arts — can access the images for classwork, research, exhibitions and public programs.

The acquisition raises the profile of the university and will lead to important research and exhibitions, says Benjamin Talton, director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. The collection, beginning with 1940s portraits of Black residents of Chicago and Minneapolis and ending with a 1990 portrait of Spike Lee, is an important addition to an archive that includes materials from Amiri Baraka, Mary Frances Berry, Paul Robeson and Frederick Douglass.

“Gordon Parks is central to telling the story of African American life, and bringing humanity to that narrative,” Talton said. “Howard University is at the center of the African American experience globally. Obviously Black life meant something to Gordon Parks. To have a Gordon Parks collection at Howard University is like a foot in a shoe, and I think he’d be pleased.”

The photographs were specifically chosen by university and Gordon Parks Foundation staff for their educational value from thousands that the foundation owns, explained Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., executive director of the foundation. A combination purchase and gift (the financial details were not disclosed), the acquisition marks the start of a partnership that will be celebrated May 19 at the foundation’s annual awards dinner in New York.

“The arc of this collection is looking at Black pride. It chronicles his career in a way that is accessible to students,” Kunhardt said. “He’s not just a portraitist. He’s a humanitarian. He was using his camera to show poverty and despair. His pictures could be tough, but they told a story.”

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Born in Fort Scott, Kan., Parks did not finish high school and had no formal training in photography. He began documenting African American life in the 1940s, including a stint in Washington in 1942, when he worked for the Farm Security Administration. Some of his photographs of the city from this period are included in the acquisition.

He captured daily life in the Jim Crow South and in neighborhoods in Harlem, Chicago and Washington. He worked as a fashion photographer for Vogue and Ebony magazines, and in 1948 he was hired by Life magazine, where he spent two decades producing landmark photo essays that focused on race, poverty and the struggle for civil rights.

Parks photographed major artists and civil rights leaders, including Sidney Poitier, Duke Ellington, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Miles Davis. He also wrote books, composed music and was the first African American to direct a major movie, 1969′s “The Learning Tree.” His 1971 movie, “Shaft,” launched a genre of Black film.

Parks gave more than 200 photographs to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1998, the year after the private museum presented an acclaimed retrospective of his career. Most of the images were featured in that exhibition; they are now at the National Gallery of Art. Parks also donated photographs, movies, manuscripts and musical compositions to the Library of Congress.

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The Howard acquisition builds on these collections, Talton said.

“They are not just photographs, they are studies. Gordon Parks immersed himself in Chicago, in Harlem, in Washington, in Rio de Janeiro,” Talton said. “It is about the art, but it is about Gordon Parks the person. It’s about technique, and light and angles, but also about dropping into the second half of the 20th century.”

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