Photography exhibit spotlights civil rights era’s Parks, Carmichael

Gordon Parks photo of Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton working on the book “Black Power.”

Photojournalism is a powerful medium, combining the artistry of photography and the journalist’s gift for storytelling. At its best, photojournalism elevates both parts of its name.

“Gordon Parks: Stokely Carmichael and Black Power,” on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Jan. 16, 2023, is worthy of an exalted place in an art museum. Parks has given us a collection of photographs that are not just visually appealing, but also storytelling at its most compelling.

In 1966, Parks was commissioned by Life magazine to do a piece on Carmichael, the controversial civil rights activist and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. From the fall 1966 to spring 1967, Parks took more than 700 photos of the charismatic young leader, and this exhibition is more than just a document of a political figure. Parks offers us an intimate portrait of Carmichael the man.

Life only used five photos for the spread, which is included in the exhibition, but curator Lisa Volpe had access to the Parks archives and has skillfully balanced the display to show us the public and private man that Parks observed through his lens.

At the time of the assignment, Parks was 54 and Carmichael was 25. Parks was already recognized as a significant photographer. Beginning in the 1940s, Parks’ photographs spotlighted civil right, race relations and the Black experience in America. Parks was also an accomplished writer, poet, composer and filmmaker.

The power of the photographs in the exhibition is that Parks chooses to be the anonymous witness, to be unobtrusive and simply observe Carmichael as he goes about his work.

Carmichael was born in Trinidad and moved to Harlem in New York City when he was 11 and became a U.S. citizen two years later. While at Howard University, he made several trips as a Freedom Rider and joined the SNCC as a field organizer after graduation, becoming chairman in 1966. In 1969, he took the name Kwame Ture and moved to Guinea where he worked for Pan-Africanism and liberation movements around the globe.

The exhibition is organized into sections, each corresponding to one of Parks’ visits. There are several photos that capture Carmichael as he addresses a crowd and images of people reacting to his speeches. But the most affecting images are those that show Carmichael behind the scenes, the unabridged version rather than the media construction.

The best example of such is Carmichael at the SNCC headquarters in Atlanta. We see him from behind, slumped over his desk, his hands clasped behind his head. He is a man carrying the weight of his activism. On the wall above the desk are pinned photographs — including Malcolm X and residents of Lowndes County, Alabama — as well as magazine articles and pamphlets. It is a compelling photograph whose stillness invokes a great struggle.

Volpe spoke to many of the people in the photographs about their memories of Carmichael and said they overwhelmingly talked about his sense of humor. Evidence is scattered throughout the exhibit. Images of Carmichael enjoying moments of levity, such as a great shot behind the scenes at a photo shoot with Cleveland Sellers, waiting for a TV interview or relaxing at his sister’s wedding, balance the image of the serious young intellectual presented in his public persona.

“Contact Sheet of Stokely Carmichael in Lowndes County” by Gordon Parks.

Parks also shows his knowledge of photographic history. Among the various contact sheets in the exhibition is a series showing Carmichael walking down a country road in Alabama. Parks is trying to replicate the feel of W. Eugene Smith’s 1948 Life magazine photo essay, ‘Country Doctor.” Smith’s image shows Dr. Ernest Ceriani walking through a field to a patient. The essay depicts Ceriani as a selfless heroic figure, and Parks’ photos seek to show Carmichael in the same light.

“New York, New York” by Gordon Parks shows Stokely Carmichael at an anti-Vietnam War rally in April 1967.

The final section of the exhibition comprises four photos from an anti-Vietnam War rally in New York City. Two pictures stand out. The first is of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The second is Carmichael. Both are addressing the crowd, but the way Parks has chosen to frame them shows how he sees each man. King is almost statuesque, his head turned slightly toward the camera, alone except for a few men who seem to be looking warily around, as if he aware he has become a living monument. By way of contrast, Carmichael is shot from a wider angle with a mass crowd hanging on every word. He is dynamic and vibrant. Parks saw the energy Carmichael brought as a new wave of activism.

An excellent catalogue accompanies the show which is a must-have for students of the Civil Rights era and photojournalism.

Volpe said people in the photographs didn’t remember Parks being present, a testament to his ability to be a “silent witness.” The result is an intimate portrait that only burnishes the brightness of Carmichael’s — and Parks’ — legacy.

“Gordon Park: Stokely Carmichael and Black Power” is located in MFAH’s Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main St. in Houston. For more, visit mfah.org.

This story first ran in the Nov. 11, 2022 Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.

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