In 1948 Gordon Parks published Camera Portraits: The Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture, a book of forty-four pictures and text that proposed a new way of creating photographic portraits. Unlike earlier photographers who worked within the safe and controlled confines of a studio when making their portraits, Parks urged photographers to take their cameras out into the world where their subjects lived and worked. Incorporating lessons he had learned in the early 1940s while working as a freelance photographer and for the Farm Security Administration, he encouraged photographers to merge a documentary practice with their desire to create powerful portraits of people. He noted that "intelligent reporting and good portraiture require ample research" to understand "the subject's profession, achievements, avocations, moods, personality, and, most important, his significance in relation to the era he represents." By becoming fully familiar with their subjects and "remaining alert to every gesture or emotion that contributes to the sitter's individuality," photographers will be able to create "a more substantial picture of these personalities than mere words can do - through the surrounding in which they have been photographed, their dress and moods, and the symbols used."

Gordon Parks: Camera Portraits from the Corcoran Collection examines how Parks applied these principles to his portraits made from the early 1940s to the 1970s. It includes pictures of some of the most celebrated figures of the time: poets and authors such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright; musicians, conductors, and singers such as Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, and Marian Anderson; political activists such as Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X; artists such as Alexander Calder and Giorgio de Chirico; and sports figures such as Muhammad Ali. But it also includes portraits of everyday people, such as Ella Watson, a Washington, DC, government charwoman; Red Jackson, a Harlem gang leader; and Parks's former classmate Pauline Terry and her husband, Bert Collins. The exhibition shows how Parks utilized all the skills he articulated to reveal the significance of the people he photographed and the ways in which they embodied the important stories of their time. It also demonstrates how much of the power of his art and his ability to create deeply humanistic photographs of American life and experiences that addressed race, poverty, civil 'rights, and the blossoming of African American and American culture after World War II resides in his ability to create compelling and insightful portraits.

Curated by Sarah Greenough, Senior Curator and Head, Department of Photographs.

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Gordon Parks, Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning, Detroit, Michigan (Bert Collins and Pauline Terry),  1950, printed later, gelatin silver print, Corcoran Collection (The Gordon Parks Collection), 2016.117.150