Throughout his illustrious career, photographer Gordon Parks would don many hats that would take him all around the world. From photographer to director, writer to author, songwriter to composer, Parks established himself as a Renaissance man of the 20th century. But it would be the pull of nostalgia and the need to retrace childhood memories that would bring Parks back to his home town of Fort Scott, Kan., 24 years after he left.
The photographs were to appear in Life magazine, but for reasons still unknown, they were never published. Now, 65 years after Parks’s initial journey home, a book of Parks’s rarely seen photographs has been published by German publisher Steidl (May 2015), and an exhibition of Parks’ groundbreaking series ”Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott” will be on display at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in partnership with the Gordon Parks Foundation until Sept. 13.
Born in Fort Scott in 1912, Parks left his hometown in 1927, having suffered both the blister of racial discrimination and the death of his mother when he was a teenager. The youngest of 15 children, Parks set out into the world on his own.
In 1948, Parks began working as a photographer for Life magazine — the publication’s first African American photographer. He dotted the American landscape, documenting the American experience with an unflinching but compassionate eye toward his subjects, showing the plight that so many African Americans — his chief subjects — faced throughout the Jim Crow era.
Around this same time Parks decided to track down and photograph his of childhood classmates from Plaza School in Fort Scott. When he returned to Kansas in the 1950s, only one member of his junior graduating class still lived in the town. The rest had done what so many black Americans had done during this time: They joined the Great Migration and moved to urban cities, where work and better opportunities could be found.
And so began Parks’s year-long exploration to find old family and friends, traveling the roads to Columbus, Detroit and Chicago. What transpired on film was a personal record of Parks’s life unlike any that had been seen, and a groundbreaking account of segregation in America before the height of the Civil Rights movement.