By Tim Gihring //
The last time Robin Hickman-Winfield saw Gordon Parks was in 2006, shortly before his death at 93. They were in New York, in the elegant apartment that Parks bought in 1971 after directing his second film, Shaft. Parks made dinner, as he liked to do. Played the piano. Yet something was off. His eyes filled with tears.
Parks had always seemed the epitome of cool, as the first Black photographer for Life magazine, as a civil rights activist, as the Hollywood raconteur the New York Times called—later in life, when he still had a full head of white hair and a well-groomed mustache—America’s sexiest great-grandpa. (“An ultra-relaxed masculinity,” a fellow photographer once said of his style.) He had advanced a kind of lyrical photojournalism, at once artful and incisive, like the sixty-some images in the exhibition “American Gothic: Gordon Parks and Ella Watson” that opens at Mia on January 6.
But now, as he confessed to Hickman-Winfield, he was worried. Violence was still upending neighborhoods. The Black community was still hurting. Had his work been in vain? “Baby,” he asked her, “what’s going to happen to Black boys? What did I really do?”
Parks had grown up in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of fifteen children. In his first autobiography—A Choice of Weapons, which came out in 1966—he describes a Jim Crow childhood of attending segregated schools and fearing for his life. By early adolescence, he had lost four friends to violence and nearly drowned when a group of white boys threw him in a river, assuming he couldn’t swim. At 14, when his mother died, he moved to St. Paul to live with a sister. He figured things would be better up north.
His sister’s husband, however, soon threw him out, and Parks spent his first Minnesota winter on the streets, riding trolleys to stay warm. He eventually found work—washing dishes, playing piano in a jazz band, serving passengers on the Great Northern railroad as a porter—before hitting on the idea of becoming a fashion photographer, making images like the ones he admired in the magazines left on the train. And one day he walked into Frank Murphy’s, a women’s clothing store in downtown St. Paul, and offered his services—despite not having any experience or a camera.
He got the job. More gigs followed, shooting for the Minneapolis Spokesman and the St. Paul Recorder—local Black-owned newspapers—and he staged his first solo exhibition at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul. In 1941, he moved to Chicago, and the following year to Washington, D.C., on a fellowship to shoot for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency created to fight poverty. There, he met Ella Watson, a custodian in the FSA offices, and spent weeks photographing her at work, at home, in the community. Among these pictures—displayed together for the first time in Mia’s exhibition—is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century: Watson with her mop and broom before the flag. Parks titled it American Gothic.
In 1948, Parks joined Life, and stayed until the magazine folded in the 1970s. By that time, when Hickman-Winfield came to know him, he was famous. But he always made time for his Minnesota relatives. Hickman-Winfield was his great-niece, growing up in St. Paul, where she still lives today. Her father, Bobby Hickman, ran the city’s Inner City Youth League, which he co-founded in the late 1960s to empower Black teens. He would sometimes arrange for Parks to meet with inmates at the correctional facility in Stillwater, where they would read A Choice of Weapons together and talk about how to move forward.
“We just had this affectionate, loving relationship,” says Hickman-Winfield, “and I loved what he did.” She, too, went into media. While still a teenager, she began working in local radio and television. In the 1990s, she launched the public television series Don’t Believe the Hype, recently revived by TPT, which puts young people of color in front of and behind the camera.
“He didn’t only inspire what I do for a living, but how to do it,” she says, noting that Parks and Watson worked together for about six weeks on their series, sometimes without any cameras around. “Spend that time. It’s about the person whose story is being told. It’s about the relationship.”
As Parks grew older, Hickman-Winfield became a kind of caretaker of his legacy. In the early 2000s, she helped produce Half Past Autumn, an Emmy-nominated documentary about his life and work that ran on HBO. Around the same time, the St. Paul school district wanted to rename an alternative learning center after Parks, and Hickman-Winfield was asked to handle the arrangements. Any association, she thought, needed to go beyond a name on the wall. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do that, but I don’t want to see students asking who’s Gordon Parks?’” she recalls. “To know him is transformative. We’ve proven that over and over again.”
Gordon Parks High School opened in 2008, two years after Parks’s death. Hickman-Winfield began teaching a three-week class there on his life and work, and still does. She talks about his story, how he went from homeless in St. Paul to famous around the world. And every year some of the students travel to Fort Scott, Kansas, to reflect on Parks’s journey.
“I call them my Gordon Parks Scholars, young people who have been dismissed and discounted,” she says. “When they come to class, they learn about a man who had the same existence they’re experiencing. I tell them, ‘Uncle Gordon was a visionary, and you’re a visionary.’”
In the past few years, there’s been a flurry of local interest in Parks. In 2020, the Minnesota Museum of American Art, in St. Paul, exhibited his work alongside that of contemporary photographer Jamel Shabazz. In 2022, the History Theatre, in St. Paul, staged Parks: Portrait of a Young Artist, about his Minnesota roots.
As part of the MMAA exhibition, Hickman-Winfield arranged a photo shoot. Students from Gordon Parks High School assembled glamorous outfits from the newly revived Frank Murphy’s clothing store (since closed again) and posed for black-and-white images at the St. Paul Hotel. Called Gordon Parks: A Homecoming, it was a re-creation of Parks’s early fashion photography—and for the students, a kind of affirmation: you are worth this.
Parks was interested in what happens when people see themselves reflected in popular culture—or don’t. In 1947, he photographed one of the original “doll tests,” a series of experiments in which Black children were given white and Black dolls and asked which one they preferred. (Hickman-Winfield has carried this interest into her own art: restyling dolls as Black men and women, a project she calls A Celebration of Soulful Dolls.) In 2006, Parks and Philip Kunhardt, a former managing editor of Life, established the Gordon Parks Foundation to carry on this work. Based in New York, it maintains Parks’s archives, organizes exhibitions, and hosts an annual awards ceremony.
For years now, Hickman-Winfield has accompanied students from Gordon Parks to the ceremony, so they can feel the power of Parks’s legacy and see themselves among single-name celebrities like Common and Usher. Recently, she brought a student whose family was in danger of losing their home. He was scared—about his future and the flight, having never flown before. “He almost broke my hand on the plane, he was so afraid,” she says. But at the awards dinner, Qubilah Shabbazz—the daughter of Malcom X and goddaughter of Parks—asked him to walk down the red carpet with her. John Lewis, the late congressman and civil rights hero, shook his hand.
“The day before, we go to Harlem together,” recalls Hickman-Winfield, “and he walks up to the statue of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.”—who represented the area in Congress for nearly three decades—“and asks me to take his picture. When I show him the photo, he sees the name of the store behind him: Lazarus. He says, ‘Ain’t that the dude that Jesus rose from the dead? That’s me! I feel like I’ve been rose from the dead.’”
At times like these, she thinks back to the conversation in Parks’s apartment, shortly before he died: “What’s going to happen to Black boys? What did I really do?” In the moment, she could only make assurances: “Uncle Gordon, I promise you, your living will not be in vain.”
Now, she would answer differently. “I would say, ‘Uncle Gordon, they’re going to get on airplanes for the first time. They’re going to go to your hometown. They’re going to go to Harlem and profess that, like Lazarus, they have risen. They’re going to bear witness.’ But I’m sure he sees this. He knows. Promise kept.”
“American Gothic: Gordon Parks and Ella Watson” is on view January 6 to June 23, 2024, in the Harrison Photography Gallery at Mia. Admission is free.