Gordon Parks’ “American History”, or Why Style Can’t Be Taught

Portrait of Gordon Parks: photographer, writer, musician and director. © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Portrait of Gordon Parks: photographer, writer, musician and director. © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Ingrid Bergman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Gould, Paul Newman: some of the most iconic portraits of celebrities, artists and human rights activists of the 20th century were taken by a self-taught photographer born into poverty and segregation in Kansas.

Gordon Parks, “American Gothic, Ella Watson, Washington, D.C., 1942.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks, “American Gothic, Ella Watson, Washington, D.C., 1942.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks (1912-2006) is probably the most important African American photographer in the history of photojournalism. During a short vacation in Italy, my home country, I had the chance to see “Gordon Parks. An American Story”, a retrospective curated by Alessandra Mauro for Fondazione Forma per la Fotografia/Gordon Parks Foundation/Contrasto, held in Verona at the Centro Internazionale di Fotografia Scavi Scaligeri.

Centro Internazionale di Fotografia Scavi Scaligeri (Verona, Italy). Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio.

Centro Internazionale di Fotografia Scavi Scaligeri (Verona, Italy). Photo credits: Nicolò Gallio.

In this very peculiar location, an archaeological site with finds from ancient Rome, 160 b/w and colour images were displayed: a collection of family portraits shot in Harlem in 1968, crime reportages, as well as fashion shoots, representing some of Parks’ best work.

An activist supporting the Civil Rights Movement, according to the biography provided by the Gordon Parks Foundation, Parks bought his first camera at a pawnshop and “was drawn to photography as a young man when he saw images of migrant workers published in a magazine.”

Gordon Parks, “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks, “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Despite his lack of any formal professional training, he got his first job at the Farm Security Administration. He later went on freelancing, working on fashion projects as well as documenting humanitarian issues. He ended up becoming the first African American staff photographer and writer for Life Magazine.

Gordon Parks, “Muhammad Ali, c. 1970.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks, “Muhammad Ali, c. 1970.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

During his career he proved to be a multifaceted artist, including in his practice photography, writing, music and filmmaking. Although he is probably best known for the blaxploitation flicks focused on private Detective John Shaft (Shaft, 1971 and Shaft’s Big Score, 1972), he had already started to shoot films in 1964 and continued until 1987.

His filmography spans the story of folk singer “Lead Belly” (Leadbelly, 1976) to the adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiography Twelve Years a Slave (Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, 1984), long before Steve McQueen had an interest in it.

Faithful to his belief that a camera is a powerful instrument against discrimination, Parks’ photos from “American History” are a statement of his eclectic talent, personal commitment and social justice.

Whether it is a reportage from a crime scene or intimate portraits of influential political leaders, his unique and vibrant style tells a story of someone whose instinct and heart really worked together to capture the moment.

Gordon Parks, “Untitled, New York, New York, 1957.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Gordon Parks, “Untitled, New York, New York, 1957.” © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

The only flaw of the exhibition in Verona, which is on display until 28 September 2014, is the poor quality of the translation of the English texts that go with the photographs. It was a very annoying kingdom of typos and misspellings that Shaft would have gunned down with no mercy.

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Have Fun With the Ice Bucket Challenge, but Don’t Forget to Donate After You Dry Off

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, aka Sherlock Holmes and long time ambassador for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, accepts the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, aka Sherlock Holmes and long time ambassador for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, accepts the Ice Bucket Challenge.

This post might look a little bit off topic, but it’s for a good cause. Just a few years ago I was an assistant press officer at the Italian Cystic Fibrosis Research Foundation. FFC is a non-profit organisation focused on supporting scientific research in order to find therapies for patients affected by a genetic disorder for which, to this day, there is no cure.

Back then we were trying to find the best (and possibly most creative) ways to put the disease under the spotlight, to make sure the media talked about it, to make people aware of its existence and to boost fundraising in order to finance therapies for the patients. So I know firsthand how hard it is to achieve a massive outcome such as the viral campaign that is raising the awareness for amyothrofic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

As writer Neil Gaiman stated in his video shot on Santa Monica Beach, where he accepted the nomination, “by now, unless you’re living on the Moon, you’ve heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge.” I won’t write any media analysis here, nor go into the useless debate on whether it’s becoming a celebrities’ pastime. (By the way, you can read here 3 reasons why this campaign is awesome). I’ll go straight to the point instead: if you look at the amount of money raised so far, compared to last year’s, it’s worked damned good.

On a more personal note, last November my girlfriend’s dad, a former sports teacher, was diagnosed with ALS. I am therefore seeing with my own eyes how aggressive and cruel this disease is. So, are you having fun with the Ice Bucket Challenge? That’s great, keep on doing it. But as Foo Fighters remind us in its video, don’t forget why you are doing it and donate after you dry off.

Also, if you want to have a better perspective on the disease from someone whose life is affected by ALS, watch the video below until the end.

You can contribute here; via ALSA’s website; through the UK Motor Neurone Disease Association; or the Italian Aisla. If you can’t give money, just spread the word. Every little bit helps.

On Viruses, Apes and People Getting Hysterical at Film Screenings

Caesar in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes".

Hey, it happens. Scientists design a virus to get rid of Alzheimer’s and as a result they wipe out almost the whole of mankind, enhancing the intelligence of apes on the way. Too bad, I’m sure next time they’ll do it better and manage to exterminate us all.

Wondering how this idea will affect your daily life? Well, unless of course you suffer from Alzheimer’s or you’re a chimp, you may be considering watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It’s the sequel to the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes and part of one of the biggest film franchises ever.

The premise of the film directed by Matt Reeves is quite simple: the virus ALZ-113, created for good, turns out to be the worst idea ever. This is how Rise of the Planet of the Apes ended, and where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes starts. Although in the latter the outbreak of the virus is covered only during the first few minutes of the movie, for those of you interested in exploring the Simian Flu further a campaign to familiarise yourself with the symptoms and avoid being contaminated was developed by the Office of Public Health Awareness on this viral corporate website. A platform was launched to fill the gaps within the story and a Dawn of the Planet of the Apes themed release of the popular videogame Plague Inc. was created to fit the world of the film.

Exploring the Simian Flu.

More interestingly, in my opinion, a series of short films was released, explaining what happened between Rise of the Planet of the Apes and its sequel, telling how the flu spread all over the world and how this impacted the lives of the survivors.

But let’s go back to my initial question: how can all this affect us on a regular Tuesday afternoon? I saw the movie at Hackney Picturehouse, where unfortunately I experienced one of the most annoying screening ever. This is because the audience kept laughing, right since the very beginning of the movie, when the part on the pandemic was shown. I was wondering why, since no philosophising speaking ape had appeared yet.

Then I realised that in the past few days the so-called “real world” was facing a more serious threat than the ALZ-113: a creepy but also accidentally time-effective coincidence. Could the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus be an explanation for the nervous atmosphere I perceived in the movie theatre while watching the made-up virus on screen?

Hysterical laughter is a very well known symptom of not being at ease with what we are watching. It is quite clear that The Sun headlines like “Killer virus fear”, “Ebola scare hits Gatwick flight” or “Terror threat of lethal Ebola dirty bomb”, are, of course, of no help in relieving the stress caused by a possible real pandemic. Nor does this cover from The Daily Mirror:

"The Daily Mirror", front page 4 August 2014.