Howard University Acquires Extensive Collection of Gordon Parks Photographs Spanning Five Decades




Prefix 31.089 DA# GP31089 2020; Margaret Burroughs, Untitled, ca. 1946. Image courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation.

Howard University and The Gordon Parks Foundation today announced a historic acquisition of 252 photographs representing the arc of Gordon Parks’s career over five decades. The breadth of the collection–which spans Parks’s earliest photographs in the 1940s through the 1990s–makes it one of the most comprehensive resources for the study of Parks’s life and work anywhere in the world. The Gordon Parks Legacy Collection, a combined gift and purchase, will be housed in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. Organized thematically by subject into 15 study sets, the photographs serve as a rich repository for the development of exhibitions and multidisciplinary curricula that advances scholarship on Parks’s contributions as an artist and humanitarian.

Howard University’s acquisition is part of The Gordon Parks Foundation’s commitment to supporting initiatives that provide access to and deepen understanding of the work and vision of Parks for artists, scholars, students, and the public. Building on this partnership, the Foundation and Howard University are exploring future projects that draw on the collection to catalyze new research and joint programming.

Sidney Poitier w. arms outstretched in plea in dramatic scene from play “A Raisin in the Sun”, actress Ruby Dee visible on right.
Prefix 70.012 DA# 70.012; Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, New York, New York, 1959. Image courtesy The Gordon Parks Foundation

“This landmark collection of photographs by one of the great chroniclers of Black American life provides artists, journalists, and scholars at Howard University with a new resource to study and embrace the lasting impact of Gordon Parks,” said Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., Executive Director of The Gordon Parks Foundation. “As a photographer working in segregated Washington, D.C., in 1942, Parks established his first connections with Howard, which then embodied many of the values that his work came to represent. For him that was a learning experience, which makes Howard a fitting place to keep his art alive.”

Howard University is proud to be the recipient of such an important collection of work by African American artist and photojournalist Gordon Parks,” said Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, President of Howard University. “Mr. Parks was a trailblazer whose documentation of the lived experiences of African Americans, especially during the civil rights period, inspired empathy, encouraged cultural and political criticism, and sparked activism among those who viewed his work. Having a collection of his timeless photographs in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center will allow Howard University faculty, students, and visiting scholars to draw on his work and build upon his legacy of truth telling and representation through the arts.”

Prefix 47,073 DA#47,073 2020; Malcolm X, Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1963. Image courtesy The Gordon Parks Foundation

“I am extremely excited about this historic acquisition by Howard University and this rich addition to Moorland-Spingarn’s collection,” said Benjamin Talton, Ph.D., Director of The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University.The collection fortifies Howard’s place as the preeminent institution preserving the legacy of the global Black experience. In addition to acquiring the nation’s largest Gordon Parks collection, Howard University is gaining a partner in the Gordon Parks Foundation. I am grateful that our students and faculty will have direct access to Parks’s work and the resources of the Gordon Parks Foundation for research and teaching. As a photographer and filmmaker, Parks left us with a unique narrative of the rich diversity that is African American life in the United States and the beauty and pain of the American story more broadly, during the second half of the 20th century.”

“This is a tremendous opportunity for both Howard University and The Gordon Parks Foundation.  Gordon Parks’s work helped define American art in the 20th century and there is no better place poised to help safeguard his legacy than the Mecca of black education,” added Jelani Cobb, Board Member of The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Prefix 41.002 DA# 41.002; Duke Ellington in Concert, New York, 1960. Image courtesy The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Among the qualities that make this acquisition distinct is the inclusion of photographs created by Parks early in his career, during the 1940s. His portraits of members of Black communities in Minneapolis and Chicago, some of which circulated in Black media outlets of the time, are crucial for understanding Parks’s emergence as a photographer working for the popular press. These communities and the Southside Community Arts Center, where Parks operated his studio and exhibited work, allowed for the creative exchange of ideas and inspiration from the talents it attracted, and this confluence would forge some of Parks’s most consequential relationships. Other highlights of the collection include early portraits of historical figures before they achieved national and international recognition, including Robert Todd Duncan, who is best known for his role as Porgy in the premiere production of Porgy and Bess and as one of the first African Americans to sing with a major opera company; Margaret Taylor-Boroughs, visual artist, writer, poet, educator, and arts organizer who co-founded what is today the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago; renowned musical conductor Charles Dean Dixon, the first African American guest conductor of The New York Philharmonic; and stage actress Hilda Simms, who played the title role in the boundary breaking all-Black production of Anna Lucasta on Broadway.

The collection traces Parks’s progression from these early portraits of rising talents to becoming a leading photographer of Black celebrity through the subsequent decades. Represented are Parks’s mid-career works Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, New York, New York, 1959; Duke Ellington in Concert, New York, 1960; Louis Armstrong, Los Angeles, California, 1969; among other photographs of notable figures from the period.

Prefix 43.009 DA# 43.009; 1963 March on Washington, Untitled, Washington, D.C. 1963. Image courtesy The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Following this arc, the holdings also include photographs taken later in Parks’s career of subjects representing new generations of changemakers at the height of their emergence on the cultural scene, including portraits of the iconic fashion model Iman from the 1970s, and images taken in New York of Jazz musician Miles Davis in 1981, and filmmaker Spike Lee in 1990.

Using his camera as his “choice of weapons,” Parks chronicled Black America’s struggles and triumphs throughout his career as a means of advancing social justice. This lifelong commitment is reflected in several study sets featured in the acquisition, including select works from Parks’s landmark 1956 color photo essay for Life magazine, later known as Segregation Story, which had exposed the daily realities of Black Americans living under Jim Crow law in the rural South. Also represented are Parks’s photographs of the March on Washington and leaders of the Civil rights movement, including Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.

Prefix 31.134 DA# 067 New Tide, Paul Robeson, Untitled,, Washington, D.C. 1942. Image courtesy The Gordon Parks Foundation.

The Gordon Parks Foundation supports and produces artistic and educational initiatives that advance the legacy and vision of Gordon Parks-recognized as the most significant American photographer of the 20th century, as well as a writer, musician, and filmmaker, who used the arts to further “the common search for a better life and a better world.”
Through exhibitions, publications, and public programs organized in collaboration with national and international institutions at its exhibition space in Pleasantville, New York, the Foundation provides access to, and supports understanding of, the work and contributions of Gordon Parks for artists, scholars, students, and the public. Through its year-round educational programming and annual grant-making initiatives, the Foundation champions current and future generations of artists and humanitarians whose work carries on Parks’s legacy.

In a career that spanned more than 50 years, photographer, filmmaker, musician, and author Gordon Parks created a body of work that made him one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1940s, he documented American life and culture with a focus on social justice, race relations, the civil rights movement, and the Black American experience. Born into poverty and segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks was drawn to photography as a young man. Despite his lack of professional training, he won a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942; this led to a position with the photography section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., and later, the Office of War Information (OWI). By the mid-1940s, he was working as a freelance photographer for publications such as Vogue, Glamour, and Ebony. Parks was hired in 1948 as a staff photographer for Life magazine, where he spent more than two decades creating some of his most groundbreaking work. In 1969, he became the first Black American to write and direct a major feature film, The Learning Tree, based on his semi-autobiographical novel. His next directorial endeavor, Shaft (1971), helped define a genre known as Blaxploitation films. Parks continued photographing, publishing, and composing until his death in 2006.

This amazing acquisition will be celebrated at The Gordon Parks Foundation’s Annual Awards Dinner and Auction in New York City on May 19, 2022, inaugurating a partnership between the two institutions to explore projects that draw on the collection to catalyze new research and joint programming. The annual event will bring together change makers across film, the visual arts, and philanthropy, this year’s gala will honor artist Mark Bradford, Emerson Collective Founder and President Laurene Powell Jobs, film producer Tonya Lewis Lee and director Spike Lee, and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker. Additionally, the Foundation will celebrate Cora Taylor, who was recently identified as a subject in one of Parks’s best-known images from his 1956 Life magazine essay documenting segregation in the Jim Crow South.

The gala, which is being held at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York City on May 19, will include a live auction of Gordon Parks’s photographs. The night’s awards and honors will be presented by Anderson Cooper, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, Jackson and Satchel Lee, Wynton Marsalis, and LaToya Ruby Frazier. Event co-chairs include Alicia Keys and Kasseem Dean; Kathryn and Kenneth Chenault; Ava DuVernay; Agnes Gund; Judy and Leonard Lauder; Carol Sutton Lewis and William M. Lewis, Jr.; and Alexander Soros.

All proceeds from the evening will support year-round educational programming and The Gordon Parks Arts and Social Justice Fund, which provides fellowships, prizes, and scholarships to the next generation of artists, writers, and students whose work follows in Parks’s footsteps.

Update ~ The Gordon Parks Foundation raised over $2.2 million at the fundraising event held on May 19, 2022.

Earlier this year, The Gordon Parks Foundation named its 2022 Gordon Parks Foundation Fellows ~ Isa Butler, Andre D. Wagner, and Nicole R. Fleetwood. Read more about this years recipients.

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