New Exhibit Makes Wichita State University ‘The Place To Go’ To Learn About Gordon Parks

Jan 27, 2016

Kansas-born civil rights photographer Gordon Parks had a consistent message through the years, according to his great niece.

“The power of choosing a weapon, shooting a camera proved to be more powerful than shooting a gun,” Robin Hickman said of her uncle during an interview this week with Gina Kaufmann, host of KCUR’s Central Standard.  

Gordon Parks, Untitled, Los Angeles, California, 1963, Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University
Credit Courtesy photo / The Gordon Parks Foundation

Kansans — and anyone else willing to make a bit of a road trip — can see how he famously depicted that message in Visual Justice: The Gordon Parks Photography Collection at Wichita State University.

“He captured the injustices of the civil rights movement alongside the stark realities of world strife through images taken throughout the second half of the 20th century,” museum officials wrote in a release.

The exhibit showing 125 photos from Parks, who was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, runs through mid-April at the university’s Ulrich Museum of Art.  

The recent photo acquisition from the Gordon Parks Foundation adds to the university’s existing collection of roughly 50 other photographs, plus books, letters and other writings tied to Parks.

“Wichita State University has become the place to go for learning about Gordon Parks’ life,” said John Edwin Mason, a consultant and adviser on the exhibit.

While famous for his role in capturing the civil rights movement, Parks developed his career with portraits and fashion photography — areas that the exhibit covers, as well, said Mason, associate professor and department chair at the University of Virginia department of history.

“The commitment to social justice was very real but so was this passion of photography of all sorts,” Mason told Kaufmann.

Parks, the first black photographer to work on the staff of Life magazine, is also the namesake of the Gordon Parks Elementary School in Kansas City.

Gordon Parks, Ethel Sharrieff, Chicago, 1963, Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University
Credit Courtesy photo / The Gordon Parks Foundation

Dorothy Curry, who co-founded the school, developed a friendship with Parks during the final years of his life. He died in 2006.

“I’m not so sure that if Gordon were sitting here right now that he would speak about his photography as being his greatest pride,” Curry told Kaufmann.

A man who wore many hats, Parks was also a composer, poet, painter, screenwriter and author — and director. He is known for directing the 1970s blockbuster, Shaft.

The Ulrich Museum and Wichita Art Museum are conducting a two-day public forum on Parks’ work Feb. 12-Feb. 13. For more information on the Community Symposium and other events tied to the exhibit, visit the museum’s website.  

Alyson Raletz is KCUR's social media editor. She can be reached at alyson@kcur.org or follow her on Twitter, @alysonraletz.