Gordon Parks' Hungry Heart

CDS hosts discussion of the famed photographer's iconic works

Debra Willis, an historian of African-American photography, has contributed to a 5-book series on Gordon Parks.
Debra Willis, an historian of African-American photography, has contributed to a 5-book series on Gordon Parks.

Photographer Gordon Parks understood that a photograph is more than a mere image better than any of his contemporaries. 

This, according to New York University photography professor Debra Willis, is what set Parks apart. Willis spoke to a packed auditorium Friday night at the Nasher Museum of Art while presenting a slideshow of Parks' most iconic photographs.

Willis' talk, "A Hungry Heart," a reference to one of Parks' works, focused not only on Parks as a photographer but as a musician, husband, writer and as an African American living in a divided society.

"If we just look at when Gordon lived, he's seen it all in terms of the 20th century," said Willis, who is a MacArthur "genius" grant recipient and once served as a Duke visiting professor. 

"From World War I to the civil rights and black power movements, Gordon understood the 20th century better than anyone," she said.

Some of the photographic elements Willis highlighted included Parks' affinity for family portraits, taking photos of working-class Americans and using unusual angles. Analyzing these elements and superimposing them over his private life, Willis helped the audience understand the significance of Parks' work. 

"His photographs changed America, highlighting a range of issues from race to poverty to issues of crime, childhood and beauty," Willis said. 

Benjamin Reese, director of Duke's Office for Institutional Equity, said he sees Willis' talk as a foreword to the upcoming 50th anniversary of Duke's first five black undergraduates in 2013. 

"Parks is one of those rare social commentators who captures the pain of institutionalized segregation, the experience of whites during that era, and then gives us a special view of high fashion photography, not to mention the moving portraits of famous American heroes such as Muhammad Ali and Ingrid Bergman," Reese said.

Tom Rankin, director of Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, said he was honored to host Willis at such an important time.

"It's always a kind of a homecoming when Debra Willis comes back," Rankin said. "It's even more wonderful to have her talking about one of our heroes, Gordon Parks."

For more upcoming events sponsored by the Center for Documentary Studies, visit the website