This review is written by Robin Benson.
Decades of creativity
I found this box set an impressive and thorough look at the remarkable photographic career of Gordon Parks. The five books (with 1084 pages) are arranged in chronological order though the fifth one is completely different from the others. Book one starts with his first assignment in 1942 for the FSA-OWI: coverage of African Americans in Washington. Twenty-nine photos are included with the now famous 'American Gothic' shot of office cleaner Ella Watson plus there are others of Ella and her family. These first twenty-nine photos really set the scene for the hundreds more in these books and show Parks ability to capture the essence of whatever he saw through the lens. This first book has fourteen portfolios of his work from 1942 to 1945.
Book two covers thirteen assignments from 1948 to 1955 and includes thirty-six photos from the Harlem gang leader story in the November 1, 1948 Life magazine but also twenty-two fashion shots for Life and Vogue. Book three with ten portfolios (1956-1963) has the first color work: a feature about segregation in the South for a September 24, 1956 issue of Life. Eighteen powerful shots are here, the magazine ran twenty-six from the assignment over twelve pages. Also in this book are Parks memorable Life assignments on crime (September 9, 1957) and twenty photos from the June 16, 1961 issue about Latin American poverty focusing on a twelve year old boy Flavio and his family living in the slums of Rio. Book four with nine portfolios shows how versatile Parks was with assignments on Muhammad Ali, Black Panthers and forty-two photos of performers taken between 1952 and 1998. Also in this book are twenty-three examples of color work: 1958-1975 and eighteen intriguing color abstracts taken during 1993 and 1995.
The contents of book five was a complete surprise and a wonderful one at that. It reproduces fifteen of the strongest assignments Gordon Parks took for Life. The covers and complete spreads (including ads) are reduced to about 65% of the printed edition so all the text is readable. What I found fascinating was seeing how Parks photos were used in the magazine compared with many originals shown in the four book's portfolios. Here you can see how Life cropped photos and on occasion reversed them. In the Introduction to this book Paul Roth mentions that unlike Eugene Smith who eventually had enough of the way his photos were used on Life's pages Parks accepted the creative limitations of this successful middle-class general interest weekly. Looking through these Life pages I think the magazine mostly got the best out of his photo stories.
The five books are the usual excellent Steidl production, a lovely slightly creamy off-white matt art paper carries the 175 screen printing well. Each book has a short essay in the front followed by the portfolios then some Notes at the back. My slight annoyance is that the photo captions are also in the back pages so the reader has to flip backwards and forwards to get some detail about a photo. Like many Steidl titles that come in several books these five have a study slip-case.
A first-class monograph about a great photographer in a first-class production.
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