The juxtaposition of Bruce Davidson’s stunning black-and-white images of parks in New York and Paris and Gordon Parks’ affecting photographs of life in segregated Alabama in the 1950s, now on view at Jackson Fine Art, offers starkly contrasting views of public space.
Davidson’s “Central Park & Paris” shows New York’s most famous park in 1992 against photos of Paris in 2005 and 2006. His deliciously crisp silver gelatin prints capture these public spaces at the height of their seasons, be it a supremely lush spring, a summer lawn strewn with healthy bodies or a beautifully barren and still winter landscape. The richness of detail afforded by silver gelatin is at its best effect in works such as “Nature of Paris, 1st Arrondissement, Tuileries Gardens,” in which the canopy of leaves created by the precise rows of trees becomes a cloak of shimmering feathers, each distinct and exceptional.
Water turns to mercury in “Central Park, New York City.” In this image, bathers hang from trees over the lake, their bodies as angular and strong as those in Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” the city skyline curving behind them due to the camera lens. Unlike with Picasso’s demoiselles, there is a necessary air of suspense around Davidson’s bathers; we can anticipate the moment when they will release the branches and crash into the water, breaking the spell.
This curvature of image in the skyline appears several other times in Davidson’s pictures, most notably in “Nature of Paris,” in which paddling ducks float beneath a thick net of branches. The bottoms of the branches, the water and the land in the foreground all arc sensuously within the square image.
The photographer uses these curves to create an effect like a snow globe, giving the viewer a curved vista containing a highly romantic scene. Even the photos without these curves produce a similar feeling; Davidson captures perfect moments in nature, much as a snow globe presents a sentimental view of a place or era. Like those scenes suspended within glass and liquid, the parks and public spaces in Davidson’s photographs were carefully crafted by people.
But despite the manipulation of nature that these parks represent, these images are a celebration of landscape rather than of mankind’s achievements. In pictures of a lawn strewn with sunbathers in New York or Paris, Davidson sees trees as the most magnificent aspect, dwarfing the significance of skyscrapers or sculptures, emphasizing the brevity of human life against the ceaseless renewal of the seasons. In the trees there is life and potential for growth, whereas the buildings and statues were at their peak at completion and are now on a path of deterioration. Yet these images are optimistic. Davidson is exulting in the wonder of having nature at our fingertips in the city and rejoicing in the perfection of a beautiful summer day spent in the park or the magic of a winter stroll through snowy avenues.
It’s a jarring segue from the easy enjoyment of public space in Davidson’s park photographs to the images of Alabama in the 1950s in Gordon Parks’ “The Segregation Portfolio.” (The portfolio is also on view at Arnika Dawkins Gallery; both shows run through February 2, 2013.) These pictures were commissioned by Life magazine. The Gordon Parks Foundation only recently discovered the color transparencies and reprinted the 12 now on display. As archival pigment prints from transparencies, these photographs lack the sharp beauty of Davidson’s silver gelatins. The bottom edges reveal damage; colors have bled somewhat. Serendipitously, their condition and age serve the photos, emphasizing the raw realities of the era and the passage of time since.
Parks, who died in 2006, was the first African-American to work as a staff photographer for Life as well as the first to direct a major Hollywood movie, “The Learning Tree.” He broke new ground for black artists through his achievements. Just as significantly, as a black man he was able to take photographs of African-Americans that displayed a keen understanding and an empathy that eluded white photographers at the time.
“The Segregation Portfolio” showcases both Parks’ talent and the invaluable perspective he brought to this assignment. It depicts black Alabamans going about their daily lives — or trying to. “Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama” (1956) shows six black children peering through a chain-link fence into a whites-only playground. Rather than showing the faces of the children, Parks shot the scene from their perspective, literally putting readers of Life in their place so they might feel the childrens’ longing and exclusion.
Several photos show African-Americans at a “colored” water fountain or various “colored” entrances. In “Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping, Mobile, Alabama,” we see the young girl and the older woman looking into a clothing store. Child-size mannequins, all white, fill the foreground. No “whites only” sign is necessary to imply that their business isn’t welcome. A reflection on one mannequin’s back reveals a pile of dismembered mannequin limbs that appears grotesque yet lacks gore, creating a clinical sense of discomfort that emphasizes the tensions of a Jim Crow society. (According to the press release, Parks himself narrowly escaped being tarred and feathered while in Alabama!)
These images give historical and political emphasis to the collection, but it is the photographs of families in their communities that are the most impactful. In “Children at Play, Mobile, Alabama,” Parks captures a group of children playing at the foot of a tree in their neighborhood, its tangled root system overtaking a yard and inching onto the dirt road. The tree is grand, the surrounding homes anything but. In the segregated South, the children in the picture were as immobile as the tree.
If Davidson’s images aim to encapsulate the brilliance of a day in the snow globe-like space of a public park, Parks reveals a different sort of small world, showing how a small place can become even smaller for black residents.
The two portfolios converge at a single point. Davidson’s photograph “Central Park, Young Interracial Couple, New York City” depicts a black man embracing a white woman on the banks of a pond. The piece is tender and intimate, yet public. An image of freedom that belies the world as Parks knew it in the 1950s, it suggests a change in the social order that he would have applauded.