Gordon Parks: A Harlem Family 1967

The Gordon Parks Foundation

By mid-1967, Gordon Parks was at the height of his success; he had been working for twenty years as the first and only African American staff photographer for Life magazine and his first film, "The Learning Tree," had recently been released to critical acclaim. This was a time of significant civil unrest in the United States. That summer, the editors at Life, like so many other Americans, saw riots erupting more and more frequently in cities nationwide; this period of turmoil would come to be known as part of “the long, hot summer.” Life, seeing the need to address the urban upheaval, sought out Parks—who had already proven he could pair photographs and prose most effectively—to illustrate the context for this unrest.

Parks chose to document the daily struggle of one impoverished Harlem family, the Fontenelles. He spent a month photographing the ten members of the family, and the result was a searing portrait of poverty in America. A Harlem Family, the photo essay that emerged, provided an intimate view of a neighborhood, and a nation, at this turbulent moment in history. It was published in the March 8, 1968, issue of Life in a special section on race and poverty, "The Cycle of Despair: The Negro and the City."

Parks knew from his many years working as a staff photographer for Life that he needed to earn the trust of the Fontenelles before being able to honestly portray their daily struggle to live. He spent the first week of the assignment establishing that trust and forming a relationship with the family before he took any photographs. Every night, when Parks returned to his home in Westchester County, he would record in a diary his account of the Fontenelles' situation. These intimate musings would eventually give form to the essay that Parks penned for the Life article.

"You have to know what they go through before you can understand why all the violence takes place - and it is going on each week in ghettos across the country. My whole purpose was to bring to the people of the United States an inner look at the thing that brings chaos in the summer. I wanted to show what it was like, the real, vivid horror of it - and the dignity of the people who manage, somehow, to live with it.” - Gordon Parks, Life, March 8, 1968

“Hunger more than anything else stirs the kids into violent acts. Day by day it gets worse. I'm constantly breaking up a scrap.” - Gordon Parks, To Smile in Autumn 1979.

By spending a significant amount of time with his subjects, as both journalist and friend, and treating them as equals and collaborators, Parks was able to present narratives rather than snapshots, allowing readers to see parallels between their lives and the lives of the people in Parks' stories. Parks would recall in his memoir, To Smile in Autumn, “It was a matter of laying back, without even a camera or a notebook; of becoming someone who would honestly share and understand their condition.”

The Fontenelle family's story was Parks' attempt to bridge the divide in the country and show that, regardless of race and class, families across America were working to provide for their children. A large part of Parks' legacy is his role as an activist and advocate for families like the Fontenelles across this country

“I got fed up with hearing all these people, even Negroes, ask, 'Why are those people rioting?' My personal project was to show them why." - Gordon Parks, Life, March 8, 1968

After the article was published, an outpouring of concern and contributions came to the Fontenelle family from Life's readers. The sum of the contributions, along with assistance from Life, was enough to relocate the Fontenelles to a modest home in Springfield Gardens, Queens. This new home and the comforts it afforded them was a far cry from their former Harlem tenement.

However, the family had been living there for only a year when tragedy struck in the spring of 1969 - an accidental fire killed Norman Sr. and Kenneth, only 9 years old. Bessie Fontenelle was also seriously burned and was hospitalized. The house was completely destroyed and eventually the remaining Fontenelles returned to Harlem.

Here is Gordon Parks with some of the Fontenelle children. After "A Harlem Family" appeared on the pages of Life, the response from readers was overwhelming. Parks wrote, "Like Life, I have received hundreds of letters and questions asking 'what can I do?' The answer is far too big and complex for me to attempt: society must give its conclusions. I can only speak through personal experience."

The circumstances that many twenty first-century Americans experience remain shockingly similar to those portrayed by Parks: unemployment; inadequate access to education; violence; substance abuse. As we revisit this body of work, we are reminded of the continuing urgency of these issues. Parks’ legacy confirms artists can be significant instigators of and participants in ongoing and difficult conversations about poverty, race, violence, and other social concerns.

"Little" Richard Fontenelle, the youngest of the Fontenelle children, was the only family member who managed to overcome the trials of poverty. He married and had four children, one of whom he named after Gordon. Parks made this photograph of Fontenelle in 1993 in Harlem while working on his retrospective documentary, Half Past Autumn.

The images and text for this online exhibition were selected from a larger physical exhibition, A Harlem Family 1967, which originated at the Studio Museum in Harlem (November 2012 - June 2013) and will be on view at The Gordon Parks Foundation's exhibition space in Pleasantville, New York from September 12, 2015 through the fall.

The Gordon Parks Foundation permanently preserves the work of Gordon Parks, makes it available to the public through exhibitions, books, and electronic media and supports artistic and educational activities that advance what Gordon described as “the common search for a better life and a better world.”

The Gordon Parks Foundation
Credits: Story

Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator, The Studio Museum in Harlem; Lauren Haynes, Assistant Curator, The Studio Museum in Harlem

Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., Executive Director, The Gordon Parks Foundation; Amanda Smith, Archivist, The Gordon Parks Foundation; James Jordan, Collections Manager, The Gordon Parks Foundation; Brigid Slattery, Archive Assistant, The Gordon Parks Foundation; Michelle Bonomo, Administrative Assistant, The Gordon Parks Foundation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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