Seing through photographs


I have just completed an excellent Coursera MOOC called “Seeing Through Photographs” that was put on by the Museum Of Modern Art in New York.  I thoroughly enjoyed loking at the various ways that professional photographers have ben able to express their art.

There were sections about different ways of seeing that ranged from the snapshot of the documentary photographer trying to influence political and social debate to the manufactured shots of some modernist photographers making us see everyday objects in a different way.

I suppose it was very likely that I would be most influenced by the realist documentary photographers such as Dorothea Lange and her iconic “Migrant Mother”.


For my final project I had to select one photographer and explain just how his photographs influenced me. I chose the late, great, Gordon Parks. This was my effort:

Gordon Parks and the power of the camera

I have looked into the amazing photographic career of Gordon Parks. He was born the youngest of 14 children in Fort Scott, Kansas. The town was deeply segregated in all aspects of life and in 1956, at the time of great debate about the subject of desegregation, Parks was sent to his home town to do an assignment for Life Magazine.

He was the magazine’s first black photographer and he was putting himself in the dangerous situation of taking photos of events that he saw which represented the place he had grown up in and which he had to leave in order to achieve anything in life. Interestingly, he looked up his old schoolfriends in the black-only school that he attended and found that with the exception of one tragic lady, who stayed and was involved in a relationship with an abusive partner in poor conditions, the rest all had to leave Kansas to go to places like Chicago in order to get on in life.

Parks was not shy of presenting the facts as he saw them and allowing people to use the power of the images to understand just how bad things were for black people in the segregated south.



This was the first picture that he took as he entered the town by train. The scowl of the white guard as the train departs and a black photographer takes his picture is plain to see.



Parks shot photos in colour as well as black and white and here it can be clearly seen that there are different drinking fountains for Blacks and Whites. It is so reminiscent of Apartheid South Africa.

playing together


In this photo it can be clearly seen that black and white children could and did play together. The boy pointing the gun though has perhaps a present-day effect about guns and crime and the relationship of poverty and deprivation. This shows the power of great photography to make us think and debate important subjects.

schoolroom 1956


This picture of a schoolroom in a black-only school shows the poverty of so-called “separate but equal” when the debate about school desegregation in the south was to herald the whole “Civil Rights” movement led by Martin Luther-King.




This was the picture of the “tragic lady” as Parks referred to her, who stayed behind. The man smoking on the bed is her abusive partner. Her expression tells so much that words cannot.

There are so many powerful photographs that Parks took for the article. Only a few were actually used.

Life article


As can be seen above the article was called “A Separate Way Of Life”  Parks did not put the rest of his photographs on exhibition until they were rediscovered after his death, in a box, by the Gordon Parks Foundation.

The following video explains this:

This is a MOOC from the excelent Coursera that I can thoroughly recommend.  It might even get me trying to use my digital camera again!

About malbell

I am a retired Teaching and Learning Consultant. Previously I was a Primary school headteacher and deputy headteacher. I enjoy reading, doing MOOCs and learning new things.
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