Review: Gordon Parks “A Harlem Family 1967” photography at The Studio Museum in Harlem, NY – through June 30, 2013

Don’t miss your last chance to catch this moving exhibit of Gordon Parks’ photography called “A HARLEM FAMILY 1967,”  running through June 30, 2013, at The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.

Guest post by Karen Nurenberg Rothstein

A day spent in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood brought me to The Studio Museum of Harlem.

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There I had the chance to see this touching and heart-wrenching exhibit of black and white photography by Gordon Parks .  Born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks (November 30, 1912 – March 7, 2006),  he was also a well known musician, writer and film director. The exhibit is called “A Harlem Family 1967” and consists of about 30 silver gelatin photographs of the Fontenelle family.  Norman Sr. and Bessie Fontenelle, along with their eight children, lived in Harlem during a turbulent time filled with racial unrest, crime, and drugs.  But worst of all was the poverty, which made it fairly impossible to escape such a life.

Gordon Parks With The Fontenelle Family Harlem, New York, 1967

Gordon Parks With The Fontenelle Family Harlem, New York, 1967

Parks, a well known photojournalist, documented their lives as part of a 1968 Life Magazine photo essay that truly revealed the horrid conditions in Harlem during that period. He spent a month shooting the trials and tribulations they faced just getting from one day to the next. Some of the images have never before been shown to a public audience.

Gordon Parks was the first African American photographer on the staff of Life Magazine. He had done many glamourous fashion shoots for them, but he took the opportunity, with this assignment, to reveal to the American people what kind of lives so many Black Americans led during those times, and the images reveal an extremely personal look into this one family’s lifestyle.

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Bessie Fontenelle Cleans Her Bathtub, Harlem, New York, 1967

Many of the photographs are a quite dark, perhaps symbolizing the rough world that surrounded this family. Times were not easy, but they tried to make the best of it. Mother Bessie also washed the family clothes in this tub.

This photo below, which was larger than most others in the exhibit, shows the many holes in the walls, which the family often taped-up or stuffed with clothes to keep out the cold and rats. 

Norman Jr. Reads in Bed, Harlem, New York, 1967

Norman Jr. Reads in Bed, Harlem, New York, 1967

Harlem was not a safe place then, with so much crime and drug activity. The children found themselves without much and made due with broken toys and an alleyway to play in. Little Richard was sometimes so hungry he ate the plaster off the walls. Parks really understood their plight and conveyed it well in the photographs.

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Untitled Harlem, New York, 1967

Fontenelle Children Outside Their Harlem Tenement, 1967

Fontenelle Children Outside Their Harlem Tenement, 1967

Bessie tried to keep a little faith and it is shown here.

The Only Picture Hanging in the Fontenelle Home, Harlem, New York, 1967

The Only Picture Hanging in the Fontenelle Home, Harlem, New York, 1967

One afternoon when Parks walked into the Fontenelle’s apartment, he found Bessie and Little Richard huddled in the bed. He snapped this photo (below) and then asked what had happened. Bessie told him it had been a bad night. Norman Sr. had been drinking and got out of hand. When he finished kicking her, she got up and poured honey and sugar into scalding water, forming a kind of molasses, which she dumped over him.

He was in the hospital.

Bessie and Little Richard the Morning after She Scalded Her Husband, Harlem, New York, 1967

Bessie and Little Richard the Morning after She Scalded Her Husband, Harlem, New York, 1967

Gordon Parks took Norman Jr. to the hospital to see his father, who was badly burned. He told his son that he couldn’t understand why she did that to him.

Little Richard the Morning after She Scalded Her Husband, Harlem, New York, 1967

Norman Jr. visits Norman Sr. in the hospital, Harlem, New York, 1967

Parks said, ” Norman Jr. didn’t get along with his father, but to see him in the hospital, burned, shook him deeply.”

Gordon Parks clearly connected with this family and used his unique talents to show their plight, one shared by millions of other impoverished people around the world. He stayed in contact with the Family until he died on March 7, 2006.

Take the rare opportunity to be deeply shaken by this momentous photojournalistic essay. Walking out of the exhibition, I stopped a moment to consider all those that are still living similarly today… 

This is well worth a trip to the museum if you happen to be in NYC this weekend as it ends on June 30th 2013.

RELATED LINKS:

– What Became of Harlem’s Fontenelle Family? – NYTimes.com

– The Gordon Parks Foundation

IF YOU GO:

The Studio Museum in Harlem

http://www.studiomuseum.org

144 West 125th Street
New York, New York 10027
Museum Hours: Thursday: 12pm-9pm
Friday: 12pm-9pm
Saturday: 10am-6pm
Suggested donation: Adults $7.00
Seniors and students (with valid id) $3.00
Free for members and children under 12
Target Free Sundays: Free admission every Sunday thanks to the support of Target

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All text and images by Karen Nurenberg Rothstein, a contributing writer for Labeauratore.

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About lance aram rothstein

Photographer • Artist • Journalist • Archivist • Vandal View all posts by lance aram rothstein

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