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Wise women … through the lens of Gordon Parks

February 24, 2012

Voices in the mirror by Gordon Parks I came across this book quite by accident.   Our library is undergoing reorganisation of its collections, part of the project is to remove some duplicate books, and this biography was amongst them.

As a newby photographer and a would-be poet this book by a noted film maker and poet (Parks 1969) it begged to be read.  So, on the pretext of my research into ‘wise women’ I read it hoping he might reveal at least one.  I was not to be disappointed.

In his role as a photographer he came into contact with many women, wise and beautiful, who might have been overlooked or even kicked aside in the street.  He was to bring them international acclaim and notoriety.

One of them was Bessie Fontenelle. In the late 1960 Parks was to write an essay about the poverty in Harlem.  To find a family on which to hang his research would not be easy.  Those he approached were indeed living in poverty and hungry but were very reluctant to reveal it to their neighbours let alone the world.

Even Bessie in her rickety home, of decaying walls shabby floor covering, when asked replied, ‘what good’s to come of our showing people how we have to live?’(Parks 1990)

Park’s explained that in doing so she might help others in a small way … eventually she was persuaded.  Parks with all the compassion he could muster moved in with the family for seven days without a camera – getting to know the ‘problems that they confronted.’ On the 8th day he bought a small camera, using it quietly – careful not abuse their privacy. He also kept a diary to record the difficulties of the Fontenelles.

It is a sad story of a woman who ‘never complained … and got used to hard times’ and was cruelly crushed by society when trying to provide for her family.

While Parks’ book has drawn my attention to a very wise woman it has broaden my view of photography and poetry in art –creatively and wisely.  I will look and listen closely to more of his work and learn.


Parks, G. (1969). Gordon Parks : a poet and his camera. London, Andre Deutsch.

Parks, G. (1990). Voices in the mirror : an autobiography London, Doubleday.

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