Man of the world (Passport of Gordon Parks)

Way back in the eighties I played with a brilliant and relentless improv saxophonist named Maury Coles, who booked us a series of gigs in the Subway Room of the old Spadina Hotel – Maury on Sax, me on Synths, and a different eccentric wild-man instrumentalist for our guest third, each week.

One of the most interesting characters who joined us was Bill Smith, whose legend Maury never tired of telling. Bill began working as a music critic, and might have carried on that way forever, had he not been confronted by the subject of one his more scathing reviews one day, and challenged, “Who are you to say that about my playing? What do you know? What do you play?”

Bill, to his everlasting credit, did not defend his ignorance, but instead took the rebuke seriously and thus began his own mature musical studies (Sax and Clarinet) which soon lead to his active career as performing musician, record producer, improv reviewer, and for many years the editor and co-publisher of the excellent magazine “Coda.”

I never forgot that story – important and powerful both. Not only is ignorant criticism much too easy – defending our ignorance, is a (common) habit which robs us of chances for serious and life-changing growth.

Which leads me nicely into today’s story about a truly beautiful man – Gordon Parks – and what one of his most famous assignments can tell us about the ways in which we observe and criticize the world and those around us.

Empathy for the subject

Parks took up photography at the age of 25 (1937), inspired by magazine photos depicting the plight of migrant workers. The clerk who developed his first roll of film was so impressed, he sent Parks to try out for a fashion assignment, which work ultimately brought him to set up a studio in Chicago, specializing in portraits of black society women. This work lead him to the very material which had originally inspired him, documenting the plight of farmers for the Farm security administration. His contributions to this key visual history are very important and well-recognized.

While unafraid of being directly political, Parks never got trapped into one sort of work or theme. After documenting the all black 322 squadron in the war and a project on the state of small towns in America, he moved to Harlem, where he did work for Vogue, and then Life, to which he contributed actively between 1948 and 1972 – truly a top tier gig!

Along the way he did iconic portraits of Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and many other important figures from this dramatic historical period.

The backside of getting one exactly right

It was in the mid sixties that he did one of his most famous and controversial assignments for Life magazine – a story about Flavio, a young boy who lived in a favela on the hillside above Rio, and had been forced by hard circumstance to become the man of the house, working endlessly to care for his siblings and stricken mother. HIs photography (and also documentary film – his first film project) are utterly heartbreaking, so much so that I felt uncomfortable re-shooting them (though the gallery permits it).

The photo from his first visit which I felt absolutely key, especially in light of all of the following criticism, was the one of Parks holding Flavio’s baby sister in a tender way that destroys any cynical cheap-shots, instantly. This image too is revealing.  Back then, one negative could do a whole lot of heavy-lifting, if you really nailed-it!

Yes – his work in the favela absolutely does deliver in your face confrontational pathos – just as it did for migrant farmers in the thirties. Poverty in Chicago and Harlem had also come under the close and critical scrutiny of his lens.

But something strange happened on this one – Gordon and Flavio’s connection was so real and personal, and the outpouring of public sympathy from the Life magazine story so huge, that he was able to bring Flavio to the US for badly needed Athsma treatments, thanks to a flood of donations.

A long way from home

Flavio looks just a little bit dazzled here, and of course it’s more than just the unfamiliar setting – his whole life was upended by a story, and even as a kid, you can tell he recognized that it was his sad circumstances which brought the sympathy – which couldn’t help but hurt his strong-kid pride.

Taste of another life

Being instantly middle class has to have been weird, but kids adapt fast, and Flavio hadn’t been able to be a kid for so long. Even performing for the cameras, one suspects, was a lot less exhausting than the fourteen hours of chores he was used to back home. Soft bed, warm showers, clean clothes – nice.  He stayed long after his treatments were done, and the Goncalves family who were housing him would have happily adopted him, if only his father (who stood to lose benefits) had allowed it.

O Cruzeiro was unimpressed

Back in Brazil, all of this intense invasive American attention to their worst poverty was taken as a huge insult – and the cold-war timing is key. They weren’t crazy to be offended. There is good evidence that Life magazine sent Parks on his assignment hoping for a very different story, one that would help Kennedy, freshly embarrassed by the “Bay of Pigs” incident, build domestic support for future American incursions. But Parks knew what he was really looking at, and he was no imperialist propogandist. The Brazilian editorial cartoonists had great fun with the matter, and one paper, O Cruzeiro, even decided to send their own team to do a photo essay about poverty in New York – where Life magazine was published!

Meanwhile, back in the New York of 1964

Several of the photographs from that O Cruzeiro photo-essay were included in the exhibition – but this one really stood out, just as cynical as they could possibly frame it. Intentions clear.  Their anger, also.

Going home again

Do I believe that Parks own intentions were exploitative and cynical? No I really do not.

This photo of him and Flavio, just before Flavio’s final return to Brazil, proves it to me wordlessly (and makes me tear-up absolutely every time).

Life meets Art meets life

Here’s Flavio looking at an art book created out of photographs of the extreme painful and shameful poverty he lived through as a youngster (and never did manage to entirely escape, despite many efforts).

We can’t help but share his conflicted feelings. His letters to Parks prove the two cared deeply about the connection they had established – he knew Gordon meant well, and wanted to make more people care about the poverty they both undersood far too well. But for all that humiliating attention, he stayed very poor.

Nowadays, we often hear criticism about the whole Life magazine approach to real-time historical documentary photography. Are there areas where we can see political manipulation, shallowness, bias, hidden agendas, morbid fascination with the unwholesome? Yes, all of these and more flaws can be located.

But if we are to judge results, recognizing intention comes first – and the aspirations of Parks and many other photo journalists of that era were deeply intertwined with humanism, compassion, and the long great struggle for increasing liberty and rights for all.

Flaws and backfires must be noted and learned from – but heart and vision still count – especially if we want to know which lesson we’re supposed to learn!

“Flavio” was Parks first movie – but he was soon the first major black director in American film. Making “The Learning Tree” in 1969 from his own book, and then even co-creating the Blacksploitation genre (which introduced black action heroes to the screen) by directing “Shaft” in 1971.

From the forties on, he wrote books about photography, novels and poetry, exhibited his paintings, as well as his incredible photography. Musical from an early age (played piano professionally in a brothel, as a teen) he even wrote several of his own film scores, and also composed “Martin” a ballet dedicated to Martin Luther King.

Can one find many things to criticize, in a dazzlingly broad and world-altering body of work like that?
Yeah, sure. But then, tell me this buddy – what exactly do you play?

All images from the recent exhibition “Gordon Parks – the Flavio Story” at the truly extraordinary Ryerson Image Centre.

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