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Monthly Masters' Critique - April 2018 - Gordon Parks' "Water Fountains"
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Apr 1, 2018 13:47:44   #
minniev Loc: MIssissippi
 
Gordon Parks was one of the seminal figures of twentieth century photography. A humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice, he left behind a body of work that documents many of the most important aspects of American culture from the early 1940s up until his death in 2006, with a focus on race relations, poverty, civil rights, and urban life. In addition, Parks was also a celebrated composer, author, and filmmaker who interacted with many of the most prominent people of his era - from politicians and artists to celebrities and athletes. He was the first black staff photographer for both Life and Vogue magazines and was awarded the National Medal of Arts. His long career left a legacy in fashion and portraiture as well as in social awareness.

Gordon Parks'€™ "Segregation Story"€ images, first published in Life magazine in 1956, are as important today as they were 60 years ago. Though the civil rights movement is most commonly associated with black-and-white photography, these images, which are part of a recent exhibition at Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, were shot on color film, and connect past and present in a more immediate way.

Take a look at some of the links about his life and work, and review the images. Then react to the posted image. Below the links are some questions to get you thinking.

Links for Learning:
http://www.gordonparksfoundation.org/artist
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Parks
https://www.artsy.net/artist/gordon-parks
https://www.cnn.com/style/article/gordon-parks-civil-rights-photography/index.html
http://time.com/4200148/gordon-parks-photographs-black-humanity/
https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/24/t-magazine/art/gordon-parks-segregation-story.html?action=click&contentCollection=T%20Magazine&pgtype=imageslideshow&module=RelatedArticleList&region=CaptionArea&version=SlideCard-1

Questions To Consider:
1. Is photography capable of informing change in societal attitudes and/or behaviors? Why or why not? Should photography be used this way? Why or why not?
2. What do you think of this specific image? The choices of composition, color, framing? Does it have emotional impact for you?
3. Parks broke some rules here from a strictly photographic point of view. The subjects are shot from behind with no eye contact. There is an out of focus intrusion on the left that suggests the image may have been shot from inside a car. There is a metal bar that blocks our vision. What are your thoughts about these problems?
4. Have you ever shot images you feel might have impact on the social awareness of viewers? If you'€™re willing, please post one and share your story about it, including any reactions you'€™ve had from viewers.

http://www.jackshainman.com/artists/gordon-parks/
http://www.jackshainman.com/artists/gordon-parks/...
(Download)

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Apr 1, 2018 16:04:31   #
artBob Loc: Near Chicago
 
As a street photo, it's okay, the "from the car" info adding to the informality, to the "street" nature. I wonder about the crop, though. Why not bring out the essentials, or is the window with all the ads important?
Social Change? Yes, it's always been a part of artists' statements. Parks? He seems "stagey," mostly light entertainment. Great prints, though.



Reply
Apr 1, 2018 18:09:31   #
minniev Loc: MIssissippi
 
artBob wrote:
As a street photo, it's okay, the "from the car" info adding to the informality, to the "street" nature. I wonder about the crop, though. Why not bring out the essentials, or is the window with all the ads important?
Social Change? Yes, it's always been a part of artists' statements. Parks? He seems "stagey," mostly light entertainment. Great prints, though.


Thank you artBob, for jumping in early on this image! I agree with you that social change has always been one of many underlying themes in art, and this was true long before photography made it easier to do. I was interested in your comment about Parks' work being stagey and hope you'll add more to that, since my impression was so different and I'm always interested in other viewpoints.

The images from his southern civil rights series struck me as authentic and familiar to me from growing up in the south in the 50s and 60s, and not very light or entertaining.

Reply
 
 
Apr 1, 2018 18:46:36   #
Cany143 Loc: SE Utah
 
Almost all aestheticians agree that there are three necessary conditions for a work of Art: someone to produce the work, the work itself, and a viewer of that work. One notable exception to that would be Leo Tolstoy, who, while not writing War and Peace, argued that the work need only exist in the mind of it's maker, the product and a viewer be damned.

Aestheticians and Art Historians also generally agree that all Art is in some way propogandistic in nature. On the artist's side, that can only be known by knowing their actual intent, and intent is difficult to assess without the direct input --the 'say-so,' so to speak-- of the artist. Even then, intent may be either conscious or unconscious, liminal or subliminal, and as such, knowing one's intent may sometimes be unavailable, even to the Artist. The work itself is neutral; it just is, without consciousness or intent. That leaves us with the viewer, who thus becomes key since it is her or him who decides --should they choose to decide at all--whether to like or not like the work, or whether the work has merit (or intent) beyond itself. In deciding so, a complex web of the subjective -vs- the objective comes into play, and however one tries to thread that needle, too often the viewer remains in Plato's Cave.

Propoganda is ordinarily thought to be the assertion of someone's political point of view, and most rightly see the use of deceptive tactics (card stacking, proof by analogy, outright lies, etc.) as being negative. But if the viewer is unaware that they are somehow being manipulated, however subtly, that view may not be available to them. But politics is not the sole domain of 'this elected official -vs- that elected official,' or even their respective views or parties. Politics is what happens whenever one person's views --on anything, Art included-- come into conflict with a dissenting or opposing view of that same thing. And so on and so on and so on.

The discussion at hand, however, concerns an assessment of Parks' photograph. Is it a Work of Art? Is it propoganda? Or is it simply an artifact of reportage? In my (subjective, but studied) view, it is all three. And actually, it is rather more. The question is raised concerning the fact that the viewer doesn't see the eyes/faces of the woman or the child. Is this 'bad?' I think not. Quite the opposite. By denying the viewer a chance to personalize either figure, the two become All People, in this case, of a particular type. Another question is raised (though differently stated), is it proper to propogandize something? Yes, absolutely, when propoganda is fact and reality and truth, making propoganda the wrong word to describe what is actual for a segment of society. Does it matter that a portion of Parks' shot is out of focus? Oh, please! Have I ever tried to shoot something with some social or political intent? Uhhhh, yeah. But it took me a while to recognize I was doing so.

Good art is meant to evoke/provoke a reaction. Great Art does the same, but because there is a universality to it, it informs us, and affects us more deeply by prompting us to actualize those reactions into positive change in ourselves and in our surroundings.

Reply
Apr 1, 2018 20:15:12   #
artBob Loc: Near Chicago
 
minniev wrote:
Thank you artBob, for jumping in early on this image! I agree with you that social change has always been one of many underlying themes in art, and this was true long before photography made it easier to do. I was interested in your comment about Parks' work being stagey and hope you'll add more to that, since my impression was so different and I'm always interested in other viewpoints.

The images from his southern civil rights series struck me as authentic and familiar to me from growing up in the south in the 50s and 60s, and not very light or entertaining.
Thank you artBob, for jumping in early on this ima... (show quote)


Mini, I agree that the civil rights scenes are different. I also think Gordon Parks is an important photographer. As with you, his success as a black man and his photos of the South were part of my desire to get the Civil Rights Act passed.

As for "stagey," you made me think. First noticeable is his lighting and posing, literally as is done when directing a stage play. However, I thought, posing the subject and lighting him or her is not at all unusual. Why, Karsh did it. Then I understood what I meant. Karsh's use of lighting and pose dug down into the subject, revealed a deep aspect. This is not true of Parks. (I was looking at the first 7 photos shown when you google images of "gordon parks photos.")

The eight image is one of his civil rights series. After looking at more of these. the problem is the reverse. The subject(s) seem authentic and moving, while the lighting and composition are little more than snapshots for the most part.

As a photographer, he was good but not museum-quality great. As a photographer, he helped change the world. An admirable person.

Reply
Apr 1, 2018 22:09:33   #
minniev Loc: MIssissippi
 
Cany143 wrote:
Almost all aestheticians agree that there are three necessary conditions for a work of Art: someone to produce the work, the work itself, and a viewer of that work. One notable exception to that would be Leo Tolstoy, who, while not writing War and Peace, argued that the work need only exist in the mind of it's maker, the product and a viewer be damned.

Aestheticians and Art Historians also generally agree that all Art is in some way propogandistic in nature. On the artist's side, that can only be known by knowing their actual intent, and intent is difficult to assess without the direct input --the 'say-so,' so to speak-- of the artist. Even then, intent may be either conscious or unconscious, liminal or subliminal, and as such, knowing one's intent may sometimes be unavailable, even to the Artist. The work itself is neutral; it just is, without consciousness or intent. That leaves us with the viewer, who thus becomes key since it is her or him who decides --should they choose to decide at all--whether to like or not like the work, or whether the work has merit (or intent) beyond itself. In deciding so, a complex web of the subjective -vs- the objective comes into play, and however one tries to thread that needle, too often the viewer remains in Plato's Cave.

Propoganda is ordinarily thought to be the assertion of someone's political point of view, and most rightly see the use of deceptive tactics (card stacking, proof by analogy, outright lies, etc.) as being negative. But if the viewer is unaware that they are somehow being manipulated, however subtly, that view may not be available to them. But politics is not the sole domain of 'this elected official -vs- that elected official,' or even their respective views or parties. Politics is what happens whenever one person's views --on anything, Art included-- come into conflict with a dissenting or opposing view of that same thing. And so on and so on and so on.

The discussion at hand, however, concerns an assessment of Parks' photograph. Is it a Work of Art? Is it propoganda? Or is it simply an artifact of reportage? In my (subjective, but studied) view, it is all three. And actually, it is rather more. The question is raised concerning the fact that the viewer doesn't see the eyes/faces of the woman or the child. Is this 'bad?' I think not. Quite the opposite. By denying the viewer a chance to personalize either figure, the two become All People, in this case, of a particular type. Another question is raised (though differently stated), is it proper to propogandize something? Yes, absolutely, when propoganda is fact and reality and truth, making propoganda the wrong word to describe what is actual for a segment of society. Does it matter that a portion of Parks' shot is out of focus? Oh, please! Have I ever tried to shoot something with some social or political intent? Uhhhh, yeah. But it took me a while to recognize I was doing so.

Good art is meant to evoke/provoke a reaction. Great Art does the same, but because there is a universality to it, it informs us, and affects us more deeply by prompting us to actualize those reactions into positive change in ourselves and in our surroundings.
Almost all aestheticians agree that there are thre... (show quote)


Thank you for this in depth response about the art and the image, and especially about the "politics"/propaganda of art.

I agree with what you said about subjects being photographed from side/rear preventing view of their faces. Not only do the two become All People of a particular group, they might also be seen to represent the facelessness of marginalized groups as perceived by those of the dominant group.

I hope you'll consider sharing an image of yours with social/political intent and talk to us about it, makes no difference whether you feel it was successful or not. I plan to share one a bit later in the thread.

Reply
Apr 1, 2018 22:28:12   #
Cany143 Loc: SE Utah
 
minniev wrote:
...consider sharing an image of yours with social/political intent.


No problem, minniev (I find it odd to call you that, but hey....). The thing is, half the stuff I've posted (albeit in the 'Gallery' section) might fit the bill. That said, here's one you --personally-- might recognize. WRT 'discussing' it, or any image, the best I might say is that I try to be a neutral observer, however much I fail in that endeavor.


(Download)

Reply
 
 
Apr 1, 2018 22:33:07   #
minniev Loc: MIssissippi
 
artBob wrote:
Mini, I agree that the civil rights scenes are different. I also think Gordon Parks is an important photographer. As with you, his success as a black man and his photos of the South were part of my desire to get the Civil Rights Act passed.

As for "stagey," you made me think. First noticeable is his lighting and posing, literally as is done when directing a stage play. However, I thought, posing the subject and lighting him or her is not at all unusual. Why, Karsh did it. Then I understood what I meant. Karsh's use of lighting and pose dug down into the subject, revealed a deep aspect. This is not true of Parks. (I was looking at the first 7 photos shown when you google images of "gordon parks photos.")

The eight image is one of his civil rights series. After looking at more of these. the problem is the reverse. The subject(s) seem authentic and moving, while the lighting and composition are little more than snapshots for the most part.

As a photographer, he was good but not museum-quality great. As a photographer, he helped change the world. An admirable person.
Mini, I agree that the civil rights scenes are dif... (show quote)


Thanks so much for coming back to respond to my question. Just to see what you were referencing, I googled Parks to see what images came up first, and in terms of the portrait images, I do agree with you that they lack the depth of a Karsh. I was not very familiar with Parks' work when I started research for this thread, but found his civil rights images his most powerful. He surely did pursue a lot of different creative interests!

I do appreciate your showing your take on a crop. Because I tend to include too much stuff in my frames, and have a preference for over-busy compositions, I would not have thought of a crop. So I asked myself why the second window was included. My own thought is that he may have included it to illustrate that the little girl was at the "Colored" Window even though the sign isn't visible. The Dairy Dreams, in those days, had the two windows for that reason. Even today, some of the older fast food buildings that date back to the 50s still have two windows though they both serve whoever shows up first, or one is permanently blocked. Signs can have power, even when they aren't visible.

Reply
Apr 2, 2018 07:15:02   #
magnetoman Loc: Purbeck, Dorset, UK
 
My reaction is always the same to this type of photograph, I feel ashamed and awkward. I’m not sure why as I have never been racist and I’ve worked alongside, and employed, people of many races, and I have a black daughter-in-law and a mixed race grandson. I think the shame I feel is that white folk could treat fellow humans so badly in so many ways. The awkwardness is that I may be considered part of a race that did that. These feelings have worsened with age, but I’ve always felt that way, even as a child when my best friend, who lived next door, was what was then referred to as Eurasian, part Indian and part Welsh in her case.
As far as the posted photo is concerned, I think it tells it’s story admirably, particularly now I understand the purpose of the two windows (which alluded me entirely until you explained Min). Certainly a snapshot, taken as the moment presented itself, but that doesn’t detract from its impact. Like all shots of this nature, awful but necessary. I was not aware of Parks previously but I can see the valuable contribution he made to this cause.

Reply
Apr 2, 2018 07:28:43   #
ebrunner Loc: New Jersey Shore
 
minniev wrote:
Gordon Parks was one of the seminal figures of twentieth century photography. A humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice, he left behind a body of work that documents many of the most important aspects of American culture from the early 1940s up until his death in 2006, with a focus on race relations, poverty, civil rights, and urban life. In addition, Parks was also a celebrated composer, author, and filmmaker who interacted with many of the most prominent people of his era - from politicians and artists to celebrities and athletes. He was the first black staff photographer for both Life and Vogue magazines and was awarded the National Medal of Arts. His long career left a legacy in fashion and portraiture as well as in social awareness.

Gordon Parks'€™ "Segregation Story"€ images, first published in Life magazine in 1956, are as important today as they were 60 years ago. Though the civil rights movement is most commonly associated with black-and-white photography, these images, which are part of a recent exhibition at Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, were shot on color film, and connect past and present in a more immediate way.

Take a look at some of the links about his life and work, and review the images. Then react to the posted image. Below the links are some questions to get you thinking.

Links for Learning:
http://www.gordonparksfoundation.org/artist
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Parks
https://www.artsy.net/artist/gordon-parks
https://www.cnn.com/style/article/gordon-parks-civil-rights-photography/index.html
http://time.com/4200148/gordon-parks-photographs-black-humanity/
https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/24/t-magazine/art/gordon-parks-segregation-story.html?action=click&contentCollection=T%20Magazine&pgtype=imageslideshow&module=RelatedArticleList&region=CaptionArea&version=SlideCard-1

Questions To Consider:
1. Is photography capable of informing change in societal attitudes and/or behaviors? Why or why not? Should photography be used this way? Why or why not?
2. What do you think of this specific image? The choices of composition, color, framing? Does it have emotional impact for you?
3. Parks broke some rules here from a strictly photographic point of view. The subjects are shot from behind with no eye contact. There is an out of focus intrusion on the left that suggests the image may have been shot from inside a car. There is a metal bar that blocks our vision. What are your thoughts about these problems?
4. Have you ever shot images you feel might have impact on the social awareness of viewers? If you'€™re willing, please post one and share your story about it, including any reactions you'€™ve had from viewers.
Gordon Parks was one of the seminal figures of twe... (show quote)


Thank you Minniev for providing us with useful links that provide a diverse information about this important photographer, so that we might better develop an informed opinion about the photo in question.

In the reading, it was noted that Park's photograph "American Gothic" was an indictment of America. In many ways I think that is true of this photograph as well. We see a young woman with her child. Both are nicely attired in clothing suitable for a special occasion. Despite her adherence to societal norms, she is forced to acknowledge herself as being separated from the white society by quenching her thirst at a "blacks only" drinking fountain. We know that blacks were, by law, treated as a minority before the advent of civil rights legislation. In the photo, however, there are no white people. It is impossible to distinguish who the minority or segregated group actually is. Only because we know the history behind the civil rights struggle, can we determine that she is a minority being forced to drink at a separate fountain.

Without context, there is ambiguity about what group is being discriminated against. As such I see this photo as more as an indictment of any form of segregation or discrimination. I don't believe that this was Park's intent when he snapped the shutter; but that is how I view this photo. The drinking fountains are identical and do not give any design indication that one is better than the other. They are in front of a shop display that does not have any sings saying that one group or the other is prohibited from shopping there. It is a powerful image that, I believe, is meant to evoke outrage in the viewer concerning the treatment of the woman and her daughter. I find it ironic that the actual image does not give us any clues as to which is the favored group and which is the group being discriminated against. We make this decision ourselves independent of the information in the photo.

Of course there is a context here and that is the context that we bring with us from our own experience. There was a great deal of discrimination against African Americans at the time that this photo was taken. We have made progress; but it is hard to deny that African Americans an other groups of people in the United States are still being treated differently than Whites. This photo is important because it makes clear that we need to strive for a society in which everyone is treated as equal. The photo makes me long for a time in our country when there are no more disenfranchised population groups of any kind. We still have a long way to go for that reality to establish itself; but I do believe we will get there.
Erich

Reply
Apr 2, 2018 12:12:05   #
R.G. Loc: Scotland
 
I looked for the distinctive style that your links referred to and couldn't discern anything specific. However, what is distinctive is the subject matter. It seems to me that with such an emotionally charged subject, all that's needed is material that makes a clear statement, and his more "iconic" shots do exactly that. I suspect that the public of that time weren't used to seeing such a vivid message portrayed by mere photographs, and they put the impact the shots created down to style. And it didn't hurt that he worked for some of the leading magazines of the time. An image appearing in a well respected magazine will automatically have credibility and impact.

Reply
 
 
Apr 2, 2018 14:07:40   #
minniev Loc: MIssissippi
 
Cany143 wrote:
No problem, minniev (I find it odd to call you that, but hey....). The thing is, half the stuff I've posted (albeit in the 'Gallery' section) might fit the bill. That said, here's one you --personally-- might recognize. WRT 'discussing' it, or any image, the best I might say is that I try to be a neutral observer, however much I fail in that endeavor.


Thanks for sharing! (and you're welcome to call me Paula, several folks here do, I am not a secret, but just using an old nickname. That said, I have a hard time thinking of you as Cany too). Of course I know right where you took this and just about when, but am still unsure of the message. I see the entirety of Monhegan as an endangered environment at risk of extermination by the forces of modernity. The "manhole covers" in the foreground remind me of their eternal battle to keep enough water. Tourists like me, while adding a bit to the economy when I visit, also place more demands on the tiny island that tries so fiercely to hold onto a way of life that is utterly foreign to most of us. My "political" assessment may miss your message though.

Reply
Apr 2, 2018 14:10:34   #
minniev Loc: MIssissippi
 
magnetoman wrote:
My reaction is always the same to this type of photograph, I feel ashamed and awkward. I’m not sure why as I have never been racist and I’ve worked alongside, and employed, people of many races, and I have a black daughter-in-law and a mixed race grandson. I think the shame I feel is that white folk could treat fellow humans so badly in so many ways. The awkwardness is that I may be considered part of a race that did that. These feelings have worsened with age, but I’ve always felt that way, even as a child when my best friend, who lived next door, was what was then referred to as Eurasian, part Indian and part Welsh in her case.
As far as the posted photo is concerned, I think it tells it’s story admirably, particularly now I understand the purpose of the two windows (which alluded me entirely until you explained Min). Certainly a snapshot, taken as the moment presented itself, but that doesn’t detract from its impact. Like all shots of this nature, awful but necessary. I was not aware of Parks previously but I can see the valuable contribution he made to this cause.
My reaction is always the same to this type of pho... (show quote)


Thanks for chiming in with a sincere and personal response. Shame and awkwardness is, I suspect, a healthy response. You're aware that there is something for someone to be ashamed of even if the someone isn't you. History never really goes away. Humans do not have a good track record of treating those outside their immediate group well, and this has endured over time.

Reply
Apr 2, 2018 14:14:45   #
minniev Loc: MIssissippi
 
ebrunner wrote:
Thank you Minniev for providing us with useful links that provide a diverse information about this important photographer, so that we might better develop an informed opinion about the photo in question.

In the reading, it was noted that Park's photograph "American Gothic" was an indictment of America. In many ways I think that is true of this photograph as well. We see a young woman with her child. Both are nicely attired in clothing suitable for a special occasion. Despite her adherence to societal norms, she is forced to acknowledge herself as being separated from the white society by quenching her thirst at a "blacks only" drinking fountain. We know that blacks were, by law, treated as a minority before the advent of civil rights legislation. In the photo, however, there are no white people. It is impossible to distinguish who the minority or segregated group actually is. Only because we know the history behind the civil rights struggle, can we determine that she is a minority being forced to drink at a separate fountain.

Without context, there is ambiguity about what group is being discriminated against. As such I see this photo as more as an indictment of any form of segregation or discrimination. I don't believe that this was Park's intent when he snapped the shutter; but that is how I view this photo. The drinking fountains are identical and do not give any design indication that one is better than the other. They are in front of a shop display that does not have any sings saying that one group or the other is prohibited from shopping there. It is a powerful image that, I believe, is meant to evoke outrage in the viewer concerning the treatment of the woman and her daughter. I find it ironic that the actual image does not give us any clues as to which is the favored group and which is the group being discriminated against. We make this decision ourselves independent of the information in the photo.

Of course there is a context here and that is the context that we bring with us from our own experience. There was a great deal of discrimination against African Americans at the time that this photo was taken. We have made progress; but it is hard to deny that African Americans an other groups of people in the United States are still being treated differently than Whites. This photo is important because it makes clear that we need to strive for a society in which everyone is treated as equal. The photo makes me long for a time in our country when there are no more disenfranchised population groups of any kind. We still have a long way to go for that reality to establish itself; but I do believe we will get there.
Erich
Thank you Minniev for providing us with useful lin... (show quote)


Thank you for this studied response, Erich. For the most part, the human condition is relate-able across time, and images keep the reality of history alive. Your comments about the viewer's inability to determine the "favored group" by studying the photo is an angle I hadn't thought of, and I'm wondering if Parks had, and whether he included that irony in the image.

Reply
Apr 2, 2018 14:20:21   #
minniev Loc: MIssissippi
 
R.G. wrote:
I looked for the distinctive style that your links referred to and couldn't discern anything specific. However, what is distinctive is the subject matter. It seems to me that with such an emotionally charged subject, all that's needed is material that makes a clear statement, and his more "iconic" shots do exactly that. I suspect that the public of that time weren't used to seeing such a vivid message portrayed by mere photographs, and they put the impact the shots created down to style. And it didn't hurt that he worked for some of the leading magazines of the time. An image appearing in a well respected magazine will automatically have credibility and impact.
I looked for the distinctive style that your links... (show quote)


Thanks for sharing your thoughts, RG. I agree with you that his style seemed transient, and varied a lot from one set of works to another. Perhaps that is partly due to straddling such a wide variety of artistic endeavors, or shifting between color and monochrome, or between subject matters (it seems a far cry between portraits. magazines, fashion, cinematography, civil rights, celebrity shots - a dizzying array of artistic challenges. It seemed to me that his civil rights portfolio had a more consistent style and stronger voice than the other work.

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