Harlem in Furs: Race and Fashion in the Photography of Gordon Parks
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Harlem in Furs:
Race and Fashion in the Photography of Gordon Parks

As the first African-American working as a commercial fashion photographer for mainstream outlets like Vogue and Life and a veteran of Roy Stryker’s photography division at the Farm Security Administration, Gordon Parks documented the underappreciated visual history binding consumer culture to racial politics. Never one to shy away from on-the-nose social commentary or obvious political allegory, Parks has been seen as an important—but frustratingly unsubtle—middlebrow African-American photographer.1 This is as true of his documentary images of black American life as it is of his commercial fashion photography. The fact that Parks also worked as a staff photographer for Life magazine for twenty years is often made to serve as irrefutable proof of his moderate politics and heavy-handed social commentary.2 However, I intend in this article to put pressure on this assumption. I argue that what has been mistaken for political moderation in Parks’s work is instead a direct engagement with the violence of self-evidence that ultimately undergirds bourgeois culture and politics.

Working in the visual idiom of the middle class, Parks found a broad audience for his documentary photography as well as his fashion photography. By examining both types of Parks’s photography alongside one another, I intend to highlight the ways in which each stands out for its unapologetic engagement with the middle-class white Americans whom Martin Luther King, Jr. would deem “the Negro’s great stumbling block.”3 Parks spoke the visual language of the white middle class.4 His photography [End Page 789] gives voice to what Louis Althusser calls the “false obviousness of everyday practice” that runs through photographic depictions of both fashion and African-American life.5 Far from a personal indulgence or financial necessity, Parks’s involvement in the fashion industry was, counter-intuitively, what gave his documentary work its political force, an impact that resonated powerfully in the visual history of the civil rights movement. From his earliest photography to his late-career work, Parks strategically vacillated between images of racial inequality and commercial fashion—sometimes within the same issue of a magazine—blending two subjects at the forefront of the American bourgeois visual imagination. By moving between these two subjects in his photography, Parks attempted to find, in a necessarily two-pronged approach, a lasting visual idiom of black American representation within the language of consumerist self-expression. In his photographs of midcentury women’s middle-class fashions and of the material conditions of African-Americans in the 1940s and 1950s, Parks pointed to the ways in which consumerism and bourgeois racial epistemology hinge on a shared belief in the politics of self-fashioning.

The belief that what one wears expresses one’s interior life was, for Parks, the close cousin of the visual politics of race. Parks attempted in his photographs of black Americans to restore the racial content to fashion photography, and vice versa. He unveiled a mutual interdependence in the popular visual field that white bourgeois culture has suppressed and continues to suppress. Of course, this is not to say that Parks was the first photographer to note the close relationship between racial politics and the fashion industry, nor even the first African-American photographer to do so. In fact, I would argue that the confluence between fashion and race forms a central conceit of the long visual history of civil rights in America that persists into the present day.

For example, when African-American photographer James VanDerZee opened his Guarantee Photo Studio in Harlem in 1917, he began what would be a decades-long career devoted to photographing Harlem’s robust black middle class. Known for reproducing in his studio portraits the stock poses and clothing found in popular white fashion, film, and celebrity magazines, VanDerZee staked a claim for black cultural and economic achievement.6 Reduplicating white taste, his portraits aim to demonstrate that black Americans can wield the symbolic social power of fashion just as effectively as white middle-class Americans. If for white Americans one is what one wears, then VanDerZee’s portraits suggest that the...