Looking Sharp at the MFA
No one can predict the trajectory of a life, especially not an African-American life in the spring of 1950, just months before Brown v. Board of Education. That successful challenge to segregation set off decades of accomplishment and strife that still continue today.
But Gordon Parks felt he was up to the job. He had a faith in his own near-mythical trajectory to an appointment as the first black photographer for that ultimate chronicler of American life, Life magazine.
And that faith was based on works. And also on a peculiar, for his time and status, openness to optimism. The black principal of Gordon’s elementary school in the small, bustling prairie town of Fort Scott, Kansas urged every class there to “Look sharp, act sharp, be sharp!” Grouped around and on the running board of their principal’s car for their 1927 class photo, the 12 members of Gordon’s class, girls at the top, did indeed look very sharp.
And Gordon’s subsequent destiny gave him the opportunity to act sharp in order to “be” at all. Left motherless at 15, his graduation year in Fort Scott, Gordon was farmed out to relatives for a short time and then ended up virtually on the street.
The street, though, wasn’t a dead end, but rather a road to a “Gentlemen’s Club,” where Gordon’s musical talents earned him a small but adequate means of survival. Next, he found a berth at a “flop-house” in Chicago doing whatever needed to be done while taking to the streets in his off time to photograph the style and character of Chicago’s varied denizens with his newly bought camera.
Urged by friends who admired his style, Gordon next approached the owner of a fashion store for ladies, convincing him that even without specific experience he could fill the position of fashion photographer. And he did.