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A New Home for Hundreds of Photographs by the Legendary Gordon Parks

Individually, the photographs Gordon Parks produced during his long and storied career are iconic: Ella Watson, Park’s own American Gothic, posed stoically in front an American flag with a broom and a mop; Muhammad Ali, up close, his head bowed in contemplation; an unnamed Black family in Shady Grove, Alabama, waiting for ice cream at the “colored” window. But taken together, says curator Melissa Barton, the impact is overwhelming. “It is so moving to be able to see all these photographs all at once,” she says. “It’s so powerful.”

Gordon Parks in the 1980s.
Gordon Parks in the 1980s. Anthony Barboza / Getty

Yale University Library’s Beinecke Library is now home to 222 of the best-known images by the photographer, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 93. Many were published through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s by Ebony and LIFE magazines: a visual catalogue of triumphs and hardships of Black life in the mid-20th century. The Gordon Parks Foundation approached the library, which already houses significant collections from Black photographers such as James VanDerZee and Roy DeCarava, as well as work from other LIFE photographers, about acquiring the images. At the university, they will be more accessible to students (beginning this spring) and researchers, as well as the local community (when COVID-19 restrictions at the university lift).

Parks’s vast body of work includes everything from photojournalism to fashion photography. The Yale collection, divided into 11 “study sets,” focuses primarily on issues of civil rights, racism, and poverty, but also includes some of Parks’s overseas work, such as a photo essay on a young boy living in a favela in Rio de Janeiro.

Atlas Obscura has compiled some of the memorable images from the acquisition:

In the summer of 1956, <em>LIFE</em> magazine sent Parks to Mobile, Alabama, to photograph the everyday experiences of Black families in the segregated South. Over several weeks, Parks focused his lens on the Thorntons—Albert and his wife (whose name is not recorded), many of their nine children and 19 grandchildren, and even some of their great grandchildren. This image of young Ondria Tanner and her grandmother, Ondria Thornton, was one of 26 that appeared in the magazine that fall.
In the summer of 1956, LIFE magazine sent Parks to Mobile, Alabama, to photograph the everyday experiences of Black families in the segregated South. Over several weeks, Parks focused his lens on the Thorntons—Albert and his wife (whose name is not recorded), many of their nine children and 19 grandchildren, and even some of their great grandchildren. This image of young Ondria Tanner and her grandmother, Ondria Thornton, was one of 26 that appeared in the magazine that fall.
Gordon Parks / Courtesy and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation
For another <em>LIFE</em> assignment, Parks immersed himself in the Black Muslim movement, with Malcolm X as his guide. In April 1962, police officers shot seven black men outside a mosque in Los Angeles, killing Nation of Islam member Ronald Stokes. Parks documented the protests against police brutality that followed as part of his wide-ranging photo essay, published in 1963.
For another LIFE assignment, Parks immersed himself in the Black Muslim movement, with Malcolm X as his guide. In April 1962, police officers shot seven black men outside a mosque in Los Angeles, killing Nation of Islam member Ronald Stokes. Parks documented the protests against police brutality that followed as part of his wide-ranging photo essay, published in 1963. Gordon Parks / Courtesy and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation
This photograph, taken by Parks in Harlem in 1947 for <em>Ebony</em>, captures a decisive moment. The unidentified boy was asked to choose one of the two dolls to play with; he chose the white one. This “doll test,” designed by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, ultimately found that prejudice and segregation created feelings of inferiority among Black children.
This photograph, taken by Parks in Harlem in 1947 for Ebony, captures a decisive moment. The unidentified boy was asked to choose one of the two dolls to play with; he chose the white one. This “doll test,” designed by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, ultimately found that prejudice and segregation created feelings of inferiority among Black children. Gordon Parks / Courtesy and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation
Asked to document Black poverty in America, Parks returned to Harlem in 1967 to photograph the Fontenelle family. The heartbreaking images of their struggles—including this one of Bessie Fontenelle at the Poverty Board with Kenneth, Little Richard, Norman Jr., and Ellen—inspired Parks to write in <em>LIFE</em>,
Asked to document Black poverty in America, Parks returned to Harlem in 1967 to photograph the Fontenelle family. The heartbreaking images of their struggles—including this one of Bessie Fontenelle at the Poverty Board with Kenneth, Little Richard, Norman Jr., and Ellen—inspired Parks to write in LIFE, “We are not so far apart as it might seem. There is something about both of us that goes deeper than blood or black and white. It is our common search for a better life, a better world.” Gordon Parks / Courtesy and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

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