Gordon Parks Photo Commentary

Gordon Parks, Lt. George Knox. 332nd Fighter Group training at Selfridge Field, Michigan, October 1943, gelatin silver print mounted on board with caption, image: 25.4 × 26.35 cm (10 × 10 3/8 in.), sheet: 27.31 × 26.35 cm (10 3/4 × 10 3/8 in.), The Gordon Parks Foundation, GP02596. Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

From the rudder, tail wing, and the United States Army logo livery in the background, one can infer that the photo is shot at a military airfield. The focus point lies on the face of the male in the center, who is black; his uniform, oxygen mask, and parachute straps reveal that he is a pilot. Through the usage of asymmetry, color, and perspective, Gordon Parks expresses the pilot’s urgent character and elicits various emotions from the audience, connecting to the social issue of racism.

To begin with, Parks captures the dynamics of the setting through asymmetry. The pilot is slighting bending his body towards the cockpit, and the fighter gradually takes up proportion towards the left. Therefore, the centerline of the photo is distorted, creating a movement towards the top left corner of the image. Moreover, his crunched posture, along with his annoyed facial expression and firm hands, reveal how the strap he is adjusting is not stretchable. This has the effect of adding a sense of reality to the photo: the pilot is unbothered by the camera and carries on tackling the belt. Therefore, the pilot’s insistent character is dynamically expressed through asymmetry; this may allude to how the Black has remained firm despite prejudices.

Furthermore, the photographer employs a grayscale to add a sense of gravity and balance. The photo relies on various combinations of black and white for color, which has the effect of simplifying the composition of the print. This is because a monochromatic palette sifts out distracting colors and allows the viewers to immerse into the subject’s essence. The color scheme’s simplicity juxtaposes the complexity of the subject’s garment and the geometric shapes in the background; hence, an equilibrium is established within the frame. Besides, the grayscale symbolizes how the White and the Black must converge and create a balance. This message is not only restrained to the context of racism in America: Parks is globally appealing to collectivism.

Additionally, Parks exhibits reverence towards the Black through a low vantage point. Based on how the plane is slanted in the background, it is evident that the photo is shot from a low angle. In fact, the pilot himself does not seem to be perfectly parallel to the camera. A low perspective has the effect of looking up towards the subject, which is a sign of esteem. Hence, Parks shows respect towards the black pilot and, more importantly, the black race the pilot is representing. This photo is a call to action: that more the viewers must be cognizant of the ingrained discrimination and treat the Black with respect. Thus, the intention of the photo is to raise awareness of the systematic racism in the United States.

To conclude, Gordon Parks develops the theme of racism by employing asymmetry, color, and perspective. The photographer leaves the viewers pondering by highlighting a contradiction: the federal government is unsupportive of the black pilots, but it depends on them for defense. Hence, the viewers are also inspired to reflect their own words and actions.

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