Invisible Man: Parks and segregation

Powerful photos by Gordon Parks are a reminder of the hardships endured by black Americans before the Civil Rights Movement.

Chris Anderson June 26, 2016

By the 1960s, the fight against racial discrimination and the segregation of black Americans had reached its peak.

Rosa Parks’ famous act of defiance in 1955 on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama – refusing to give up her seat to a white man – had given momentum to the Civil Rights Movement, which developed its own high-profile speakers and activists.

All seemed to contribute in their own way: Martin Luther King endorsed non-violent protest, Malcolm X demanded “any means necessary” in his famous speech, Muhammad Ali used his fists, and then recording it all, “using his camera as a weapon,” as he often put it, was photojournalist Gordon Parks.

Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem, New York, 1952
Parks worked closely with writer Ralph Ellison, depicting scenes from his award-winning novel, Invisible Man. The protagonist is a black man who feels socially invisible. © Gordon Parks/The Gordon Parks Foundation, courtesy of Steidl 

To simply label Parks as a man with a camera, however, is to do him an injustice. In 1948, he became the first black staff photographer at America’s famous Life magazine, and in addition to shooting fashion and celebrity stories used his position to convey black poverty and the division between races to a predominantly white middle-class audience – but he was also a prolific writer, composer and movie director. 

In the late 1960s, he wrote a best-selling autobiography, The Learning Tree, which was adapted into a movie by Warner Bros., who asked him to direct, making him the first prominent black director in Hollywood. He then went on to make other films, the most high profile of which, Shaft, released in 1971, helped to kick-start the ‘blaxploitation’ age of cinema. 

But it remains photography, and his work before and during the Civil Rights Movement, that continues to receive the most praise and examination. Gallery exhibitions of Parks’ work are shown consistently across America as a stark reminder to the nation of the way things once were – and that some may argue, to a degree, still are. 

The Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco, for example, recently concluded Gordon Parks: Higher Ground, offering highlights from his most famous photo-essays for Life magazine, including Segregation Story, which was the title and focus of another exhibition at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis.

This particular feature, published in 1956, saw him follow the everyday activities and rituals of an extended African American family in Alabama, showing children at play while hinting at the attitudes of society as a whole. 

Mr and Mrs Albert Thornton, Mobile, Alabama, 1956
The daily lives of this well-dressed elderly couple and their extended Southern family of nine children and 19 grandchildren served as the basis of the Segregation Story photo-essay.
© Gordon Parks/The Gordon Parks Foundation, courtesy of the Weinstein Gallery 

The work under the spotlight at the Art Institute of Chicago this month and with the release of an accompanying book is Invisible Man, which comprises Park’s two collaborations with acclaimed writer Ralph Ellison. Like Parks, Ellison was a civil rights activist, and in 1952 released his novel, Invisible Man, which centred on the rage and frustration of a black man who feels invisible – trying to find his place in a world defined by white supremacy.

Parks and Ellison met initially in 1948 for a photo-essay entitled Harlem is Nowhere, which explored the social and economic conditions of the New York neighbourhood at the time, and in 1952 reunited in the same location for A Man Feels Invisible, this time with Parks visually recreating scenes from Ellison’s writing. 

Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956
Even a family outing to an ice cream store falls under the shadow of racial inequality, with separate serving windows for black and white customers.
© Gordon Parks/The Gordon Parks Foundation, courtesy of the Weinstein Gallery 

There are many images here that stand out. One is the photo used as the cover of the book accompanying the exhibition, with a man poking his head out of a manhole cover – depicting Ellison’s unnamed protagonist as he climbs from his secret hideout. 

Another intriguing shot shows the same character relaxing in his underground shelter, listening to Louis Armstrong records while surrounded by 1,369 lightbulbs. Through this artistic reconstruction, combined with his familiar reportage style, Invisible Man successfully shows the extent of Parks’ skills as a photographer. 

Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1965
Children stare through a wire fence at a whites-only playground. The overgrown weeds of the foreground and the pristine lawns of the other side act as a metaphor for the divide.
© Gordon Parks/The Gordon Parks Foundation, courtesy of the Weinstein Gallery

Born in 1912, Parks lived a long and eventful life, dying of cancer in 2006. His legacy lives on, and in addition to the various exhibitions and books, the Gordon Parks Arts Hall was recently opened at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, aided by a donation from Star Wars creator George Lucas and his wife, Mellody Hobson.

By keeping his name and work alive, society can acknowledge how much life has changed since racial inequality and segregation were such potent topics, and hopefully maintain the inspiration to keep this prejudice at bay. 

Untitled, Washington DC, 1963
Parks attended Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC to a crowd of 250,000.
© Gordon Parks/The Gordon Parks Foundation, courtesy of the Jenkins Johnson Gallery 

Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem runs at the Art Institute of Chicago until August 28. The accompanying book is published by Steidl. More info at