Photography Exhibition Unites Father and Daughter’s Work

Photographer Gordon Parks and his daughter, Toni Parks, are featured at a College of New Rochelle exhibition.

Gordon Parks—filmmaker, author, composer, poet, and, most notably, photographer, being the first African American photographer to work for LIFE magazine—traveled the world for his assignments. He shot fashion for Vogue in London and Paris; he captured the favela slums of Rio de Janeiro for LIFE. But, when it came time to raise his family, he came here: Parks lived with his four children, including daughter Toni, in a house in the Parkway Gardens neighborhood of Greenburgh from the 1940s until the mid-1970s. (The house was designated a Historic Landmark by Greenburgh’s Town Board in 2007.) 

The Parkway Gardens home isn’t the only place where Parks put roots down in the County; he also received an honorary degree from the College of New Rochelle, which opened the Gordon Parks Gallery at its John Cardinal O’Connor campus in the Bronx. The Gallery debuted in 1991 with an exhibition of Parks’ photographs; he then donated the photos to the college’s permanent collection of his works (which has grown in the ensuing years). “These 10 photos are particularly famous pieces of his,” says Kristine Southard, PhD, chair of the Curatorial Committee of the Gordon Parks Gallery. “With many of his photos, people know of them and just don’t realize that they’re his.”

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That’s not to say that suburban life dulled the edge of the socially conscious photographer. “Gordon Parks is really a cornerstone not just of the art world, but of the political world,” Southard says. “Social justice is really always at the core of his work.” 

In fact, Parks considered his relationship to the college an important part of his community involvement. “The gallery is connected with the School of New Resources, which is the adult baccalaureate program at the College of New Rochelle,” Southard says. “Year after year, with every show that we do, our students become used to going to the gallery. They’ll go with a class, or they’ll have an assignment that has something to do with the show. We usually have a special opening for the students, with the artist there to answer questions. They realize that learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom. Gordon Parks was very pleased that this gallery would always be connected to the College of New Rochelle’s School of New Resources. He believed deeply in this type of education.”

As it turns out, Gordon Parks wasn’t the only one in the family with photographic talent. His daughter Toni, who graduated from White Plains High School, followed suit—in his artistic ambition and his commitment to social issues. She is a member of Kamoinge, a group striving “to address the under-representation of black photographers in the art world.” She’s also maintained the Parks family relationship to the College of New Rochelle, curating exhibitions for the gallery. “She has an incredible eye,” Southard says.

The gallery brings together the work of the two talented Parks for its current exhibition, Bridging the Gap: Photographs by Gordon Parks and Toni Parks, which was co-curated by Toni. For the exhibition, the photographs from the collection Gordon Parks originally donated in 1991 will be displayed side-by-side with photographs taken by Toni. “She was thoughtful and purposed in the works that she picked,” Southard says. “She chose works that spoke to each other organically. But they’re also both beautiful artists on their own. They stand independently.”

If you’re looking for a way to celebrate African American History Month, a visit to the Gordon Parks Gallery is certainly fitting. But, really, viewing the collection is a pleasure in any month. “Every time we take out the Gordon Parks permanent collection, it’s like unpacking the ornaments of a Christmas tree,” Southard says. “You pull out a piece and unwrap it and think, ‘Oh, I remember this one!’” Bridging the Gap will be on view through May 2. 

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