Monday, 13 April 2015

Southern life not so long ago

A wonderful selection of photos from Gordon Parks assignment to Shady Grove and Mobile, Alabama, in 1956.  As a Life magazine staffer he was the ideal photographer to cover colored life in Jim Crow country and the magazine spread the photos over a very generous twelve pages, though oddly the feature wasn't mentioned on the cover.

The sixty photos in the book clearly show how a significant minority of Americans lived in the southern states back then.  An aura of poverty comes across in so many of these images and Parks instinctive knack of framing the essential detail pulls you into the composition.  The shacks, school, a church service, funeral, work in the fields and kids playing are all here, showing the colored community separate but hopelessly unequal.  The full impact of these photos really comes across in the last few photos in the book because here segregation is spelt out in no uncertain terms with signs: 'Colored entrance' at a movie house; two drinking fountains with 'Colored only' on one of them; 'Colored waiting room' at a bus station (actually taken in Nashville) and the book's cover photo at Atlanta airport with a sign, partially obscured, that says 'Colored only'.  The final photo in the book shows six children looking through a wire fence at a playground (slides, swimming pool, et cetera) in a white neighborhood.

Steidl have nicely added an something extra at the back of the book: the twelve pages  from the September 24, 1956 issue of Life that featured Parks segregation photo assignment. Reproduced smaller than Life size but the story by Robert Wallace and all the captions are quite readable.  Incidentally, the Steidl five volume box set of Gordon Parks photo career has one of the books devoted to reproductions of several of his Life assignments.

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