2013 Common Work of Art
August 27, 2013 - May 25, 2014
Gordon Parks (United States, 1912-2006)
Flavio Amuses Smaller Brothers and Sisters (Holding Up Torn Paper), 1961 Gelatin silver print
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, the 2013 K-State Common Book, is set in a world of scarce resources and limited opportunities. In this near future, people escape their grim existence by plugging into the OASIS, a virtual utopia. In the Common Work of Art, this photograph by Gordon Parks, a Brazilian boy living in a slum temporarily transcends his circumstances by altering his appearance. Ready Player One’s protagonist, a young man named Wade, uses the OASIS to achieve a similar goal. Through their work, both Parks and Cline critically examine the themes of identity, reality, and perception.
Spurred by President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, an initiative to improve the Latin American economy to suppress the spread of Communism, Life magazine editors sent staff photographer Gordon Parks to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to document scenes from the Catacumba favela, a hillside shantytown. The resulting photo essay, “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty,” published June 16, 1961, focused on the family of Flavio da Silva, the twelve-year-old boy pictured here. Parks’ intimate portraits of the day-to-day existence of malnourished people without access to sanitation or regular health care humanized a problem impacting thousands of Brazilians.
Parks himself lived in poverty and segregation in his birthplace, Fort Scott, Kansas. During high school he was discouraged from pursuing a higher education. In his mid-twenties, he became interested in photography after seeing a documentary photo essay about migrant workers. An exhibition of Parks’ work attracted the attention of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, and he was hired with such artists as Dorothea Lange to document the era’s social conditions. Parks broke the color line in professional photography and also went on to work as a writer, musician, and filmmaker. He received over fifty honorary doctorates during his lifetime.