A Harlem Family 1967
“A Harlem Family 1967,” an exhibition of about thirty photographs on display at the Studio Museum in Harlem, is a gripping work on poverty by the famous African-American photographer, writer, director, and composer Gordon Parks (1912-2008). Parks would have turned one hundred this past November, and, in additional celebration of his centennial, a five-volume set of his collected works work has been published by Steidl.
The Studio Museum’s exhibition of Parks’s work reminds us of a recent past—one that, with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, we have a tendency to forget today—when many Harlem families lived in a state of abysmal poverty and hopelessness. In 1967, Parks, already a well known photographer (in 1948 he had been the first African-American photographer hired by Life) published a photo essay on the Fontenelle Family, from which the images in this exhibition are drawn.
The Fontenelle family—the mother, Bessie, her husband, Norman Sr., and their ten children—had tragic lives. Of all the children, only Little Richard survived, and the Fontenelle home was eventually destroyed by fire. The images here, however, capture them when they were still together, living “four flights up in an old brick building on Eighth Avenue.” Among the many instances of magnetic force and raw beauty in these thirty photographs, two remain obsessively in my memory: The portrait of Bessie and four of her children—Kenneth, Little Richard, Norman Jr, and Ellen—at the Poverty Board, and the photo called Big Mama, which shows Bessie and little Richard huddled in bed after Bessie had scalded her husband. This intimate portrait of the Fontenelle Family recalls what it means to live in poverty because of racial prejudice or unfortunate origins of birth. It should be seen.
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