A musician, writer and filmmaker as well as a photographer, Parks was a giant of his profession. An African-American, he virtually invented the blaxploitation movie by directing Shaft, earning him a place in the pop-cultural canon. Despite the genre name given to the films that followed in its wake, Shaft, with its super cool detective protagonist, was intended as a symbol of black empowerment and heroics. In many respects, those same qualities come through in these photos of the segregated South during the mid-1950s. Shot in color for Life magazine, the images document ordinary African-Americans going about their daily business in the constant shadow of Jim Crow—made evident by the conspicuous presence of “White Only” and “Colored Only" signs above department store entrances, windows at ice cream stands and city bus seating areas. The way Parks captured his subjects almost as if they were in a Norman Rockwell painting, and the restraint with which they endure the unendurable, makes the injustices pictured here seem all the more pronounced.
Gordon Parks, Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956
Photograph: © Gordon Parks Foundation