I recently had the good fortune of attending a course in narrative portraiture with Greg Miller (http://www.gregmiller.com/). I’ll write more about Greg in coming months — in particular, his approach to portraiture, to a life lived in photography, and to places of community in America — but for now let me just say that he opened my eyes to the storytelling potential of single images. I couldn’t help but think of Greg when I saw the Gordon Parks images.
These segregation images are worthy of sustained attention, both for their formal qualities and for their historical/present-day resonance.
“Not all of the ‘Segregation’ photographs are as prosaic as the Thornton portrait. Some are ominous and intense, providing stark evidence of the unjustness of segregation and the ways it endangered democracy: the ‘colored only’ signs that marginalized one community as assuredly as they enriched another; the backbreaking labor; the squalor and overcrowding; and the unequal, ramshackle accommodations.
But most of the images are optimistic and affirmative, like the portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thornton. They focus on the family’s everyday activities, and their resolve to get on with their lives as normally as possible, in spite of an environment that restricts and intimidates…”
“It is the very fullness, even ordinariness, of the lives of the Thornton family that most effectively contests these notions of difference, which had flourished in a popular culture that offered no more than an incomplete or distorted view of African-American life.”