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Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America

gordon parksKT: I was excited to see this book come in because I have long been a fan of Gordon Parks’s photography, and I was eager to learn more about him. Carole Boston Weatherford’s book is less a biography than it is the story of how he found his calling. When he was twenty-five, he was so taken by a magazine photo-essay about migrant farmers that he bought a used camera and began to document what he observed.

Artist Jamey Christoph faced several challenges with illustrating this book: to start with, there’s the historical bit and the different settings, both of which would have required research. Christoph does both really well, giving a remarkable sense of time and place through his muted stylized paintings.

And then there’s the whole challenge of making the pictures interesting when most of the action in the book involves Parks taking photographs again and again. And again. Here’s where I think Christoph’s art really shines. He focuses on Parks (always easily identifiable by the camera strap and camera hanging from his shoulder) as the observer and shows us what Parks is seeing. In each of these illustrations, Parks is off to one side, often framed by light, looking at something that strikes him. His obvious fascination with what he is seeing causes us to look more closely, too. We see the old man and little boy sitting in an alley. We see the mother and daughter walking past the restaurant with the “Whites Only!” sign posted in the window. We see the old charwoman scrubbing the floor in the government building. We really see them, just as Parks’s photos of these subjects makes us see them.

Most amazing: none of Christoph’s art actually looks like photos, even the ones that are supposed to be some of Parks’s most famous photos. The only way we know they’re illustrations of photos is by the white frames around them, and that they’re painted in brown tone rather than color.

Robin: It’s also clear that Christoph loves the subject matter. Whenever I read a book by an illustrator or author I do not know, I usually do a little research. This time, I went to the interwebs to find out about Jamey Christoph. His website was bare bones, but I was able to find his older blog and find out a little more about him. He appears to be quite young, is a freelance artist, and has drawn a lot of Playbill covers. He has also illustrated about ten books. I don’t think I am speaking out of turn when I say this current book is the most serious book he has taken on. On his blog, he says that he didn’t know a lot about Parks and details why he wanted to be a part of this book. To work with Carole Boston Weatherford must have been an amazing learning experience. If you poke around on his blog, you will see the two of them visiting a Washington, DC, third-grade class and passing out free copies of the book.

But I digress. When I was doing research, I found original photographs of Ella Watson [the subject of “American Gothic,” one of Parks’s most famous photos] and her family. I assume the committee will be finding these as well. I remember doing this sort of research when I was on the committee. I probably would call on a photographer to help me look at the originals in light of the artist’s interpretation if the book seems to have traction with my committee. (By this time of year, each member of the committee would know how many suggestions each book has, and, in a few short weeks, the members will know how many nominations each book has after the first round of nominations.)

KT, you said you were impressed that the illustrations don’t look like photos. I thought that was amazing, too. How do you think the illustrations, particularly the ones on the spread with five small images and Mrs. Watson’s somber face, hold up to the original photos?

KT: If you haven’t seen the originals, they are fine. But if you know the originals, you will see that the photos, as Christoph shows them, are cut off. The Ella Watson photographs often show the surroundings of everyday life, with people in the background, often seen through doorways or reflected in mirrors. You might see framed photographs on bureaus that show earlier generations of her family. There’s such a depth to his photographs, such an exploration of life and character. He showed ordinary people as complex and multi-layered. That’s part of what makes Gordon Parks’s photographs art.

Christoph shows only a small portion of these photos, but he makes it look like he’s showing the whole thing. Essentially, he’s reducing them to snapshots. So while I don’t want Christoph’s version to be an exact replica of the Parks photographs, I do want them to come closer to communicating the feeling those photographs give us. He does accomplish this, at least, with the “American Gothic” photo of Ella Watson, standing in front of the American flag with her mop and broom. Perhaps that is because it was a more formal pose. But am I expecting too much?

Robin: I don’t know. There is the whole “let’s look at the book that was written (or illustrated), not the book we wished had been written” issue that comes up a lot on committees or while we review. I often have to remind myself that the book in front of us was the one that was written and that there are a lot of children who would know nothing about Gordon Parks if the book had not been created. So, there’s that. But, these photos do exist. They are famous photos, and lots of people know them and will know that they were not snapshots.

I love the feel of that page, even though I prefer the original photographs. That muted sepia and the regal faces of the women and children in the photos draw me in and make me want to know more. I like how the author’s words are stacked up on the right side and the photos fill the rest of the spread. The picture on the far left corner, where the woman does not wear her glasses, seems especially poignant with the baby, the shirtless boy, and the girl with her doll. Gordon Parks is off the page, doing his work: taking pictures.

So, it does matter. But, the whole book matters more to me. I love how the artist uses shadows and light to highlight what he wants the reader to see.

Which was your favorite spread, KT?

KT: I have two favorite spreads, and I think they both show the strength of this book overall. The first one appears early on, and it shows Parks at age fourteen, just after he moved to Minneapolis after his mother died. It shows him standing on a threshold holding a suitcase, looking like he’s ready to step into an uncertain future. On the facing page, it shows an array of three snapshots of Parks at different stages in his young adulthood: working as a busboy, a piano player, and a waiter. They are not only effective at showing the passage of time, they also foreshadow his future career as a photographer.

My second-favorite spread is of Parks walking home from work in Washington, DC, stopping to observe an old man sitting on the steps in a back alley, next to a little boy. This is a really good example of what you mentioned earlier, Robin, about Christoph’s use of light and shadow. The light in this picture falls on Parks on the edge of the left side of the page and on the Capitol building in the background. The man and boy are in shadow on the far right side of the spread, but there is a bit of light glowing on their shirts that draws your eye right to them. The same light casts a glow on the puddle in front of them. The viewer gets to feel the same thing Parks is experiencing in this scene: you almost missed these two people in the shadows, but once you look, you can see them, and you won’t forget them. It’s a very dramatic, yet quiet, scene.

Robin: That’s a good place to stop, KT, because the DC spread happens to be my favorite! It has a completely different feel from the other spreads and allows the reader to see how Parks is feeling in this new city. He is searching for his subject and, when he finds her, we are all better for it. Maybe the committee will fret over the drawings of photographs, and maybe they won’t. I never know how that will all go down. What do you all think the committee will appreciate in this new book from the pen of poet Carole Boston Weatherford and artist Jamey Christoph?

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Comments

  1. I also like this book quite a bit, acquiring my own copy months back. I thought Weatherford and Christoph collaborated beautifully. it is indeed quietly effective and the use of light and shadow is striking. OK, I can’t say it worked all that well with the six first grade classes I read to this year. But neither was it alienating. Kids slightly older no doubt will connect with it more. Yes Parks’ photography is art indeed. Nice and thorough appreciation of this exceptional book.

  2. Susan Dailey says:

    Thanks for sharing the information about the original photos and for the wonderful review. The book is lovely and very interesting. But did anyone else wonder about the choice of present tense to tell the story? I know this isn’t an illustration question, but I’m puzzled by this decision.

  3. Brenda Martin says:

    It is a lovely paean to Gordon Parks and I was enthralled by Christoph’s artwork. I felt that the text was the weaker part of this picture book biography. I’m not entirely sure that the technique Weatherford employed to describe Parks’ early life was successful (“stillborn and left for dead” in the first sentence?), and her abrupt sentences and fragments along with the dark and serious subject matter selected made me wonder about appeal.

    But most importantly, there’s a glaring error of a mismatch between the text (“After Gordon loses his mother at age fourteen, he moves in with his sister in Minneapolis”) and the backmatter (his mother, Sarah, died when he was fifteen. He then moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he lived with his sister…) Makes me want to shout “Editor!”

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