Frieze Masters: Gordon Parks

3 - 6 October 2019

Alison Jacques Gallery is pleased to exhibit a solo presentation of works by the groundbreaking photographer Gordon Parks (1912 - 2006) at Frieze Masters 2019.


Known for documenting critical moments in American history over the course of six decades, Parks was an ardent storyteller as much as he was a chronicler of society. He created some of his most pivotal pictures at Life during his two-decade tenure at the publication, starting in 1948, contributing unique photo-essays that explored social justice, civil rights and community. Parks was the first African American photographer to be hired by the magazine as a permanent member of staff.


The images Parks produced during his lifetime were grounded by an interest to express his point of view - one that invariably sought to expose inequalities. At the centre of his ambition was a desire to reveal humanity. As Parks reflected, “I felt it is the heart, not the eye, that should determine the content of the photograph.”


The stand at Frieze Masters will focus on images spanning a period of four decades, introducing key periods of the artist's output. The display forms part of the fair’s Spotlight section, which considers influential figures who have historically been overlooked, and marks the gallery’s inaugural display of Parks’ work since announcing its representation of the Gordon Parks Foundation earlier this year.


Aware of the political power of photography, Parks was devoted to highlighting the Black American experience throughout his career. From his personal perspective as an African American man who had experienced adversity early on in his life, Parks was alert to the realities faced by black communities in the United States, and his interest in taking photographs stemmed from a desire to create meaningful change. “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs,” he commented. “I knew at that point I had to have a camera.” However, rather than seeking to make images that functioned as protest pieces, the artist wanted his photographs to inspire empathy. Looking beyond one’s own specific existence was the fundamental response that Parks was trying to encourage through his art.


The presentation will explore Parks’ portraiture from 1942 to 1970, drawing on several significant bodies of work, including important images from 'Harlem Gang Leader' (1948), 'Invisible Man' (1952), 'Segregation in the South' (1956), ‘Flávio’ (1961) and the Fontenelle Family (1967). A particular highlight is a group of photographs depicting Muhammed Ali during a momentous visit to London in 1966 on the occasion of his historic match with UK champion Henry Cooper, who unsuccessfully challenged Ali for the world heavyweight title. This intimate collection reveals the brash, young boxing champion in a new and unexpected light - characteristic of Parks’ approach.


The display is bookended by two especially iconic works. Taken in 1942, Parks’ portrait of Ella Watson, titled ‘American Gothic, Washington, D.C.’, was provoked by the vehement racism he experienced after relocating to the capital. The final image recognises the evolution that had taken place by 1970, as part of the civil rights movement: a powerful and poetic portrait of Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, members of the Black Panther Party.


The inclusion of Parks’ work in Spotlight follows on from the major touring exhibition 'Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950’, that started at the National Gallery of Art, D.C. in 2018 and will end at the Addison Gallery of American Art in the spring of next year. A major show at the J. Paul Getty Museum, which focuses on Parks’ Flávio series, will be on view during the gallery’s fair presentation.


The display at Frieze Masters precedes an exhibition opening at Alison Jacques Gallery in March 2020, which will be the first solo show of Parks’ work to be held in London for over twenty-five years.