Reflections on Gordon Parks and Anthony Hernandez

During a class in February, we discussed Gordon Parks’ 1956 series of photographs entitled Segregation Story. They were originally published in Life magazine as a visual documentation of the Jim Crow-era American South. His photographs highlight moments in the daily lives of African American subjects throughout Georgia and Alabama. At the time they were published, these photos were intended to foster empathy among white northern readers who were provided a powerful visual of how systemic racism permeated even the most basic activities: eating ice cream, going to school, or stopping at a drinking fountain.

Gordon Parks, Department Store, Mobile Alabama, 1956. Credit: High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Though I had seen many of these images before, one stood out to me in particular. Department Store, Mobile, Alabama depicts a woman and her young daughter standing outside of a door marked ‘Colored Entrance’. They wear their Sunday best, mother in a stylish pale blue dress, and daughter adorned in white frills, yet the neon sign above them reminds the viewer that systemic racism has relegated them to the position of second-class citizens. This image contrasts the fashionably dressed subjects in an otherwise serene moment with the glaring reminder of the segregation, hatred, and violence that impact every aspect of life. In this scene, notions of fashion and shopping are implicated into fraught negotiations of race and power in the American South.

Anthony Hernandez, Rodeo Drive #68, 1984. Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago

When I considered this image again in class, I was reminded of another photograph, taken nearly thirty years later which shares similar iconographic elements, and perhaps likewise raising questions about how constructs of race and power are played out through fashion, shopping, and consumer culture. Anthony Hernandez’s Rodeo Drive #68, part of his 1984 series, shows an African American family posing for a photograph in front of the Gucci store on the prominent shopping street in Los Angeles. This series of candid photographs of anonymous subjects documents those who were out to see and be seen. Most of the subjects in this series are dressed in bold styles of the power dressing era, acting out a narrative of the decade’s fashion on a street filled with its vendors. The majority of these subjects are white and captured in action as they move down the street. For this reason, the family in Rodeo Drive #68 stands out, particularly because we see them stopping to be captured in front of the shop. The Gucci storefront connotes a particular association with luxury fashion and commodity culture, and perhaps posing with the curling gold text of the brand name serves as a memento of the visit. As Rebecca notes in her post, it is unknown if they went inside. Both of these photos, though taken in enormously different contexts, raise questions about how shopping can be simultaneously social, personal, and entertaining, and implicitly entwined in the nettles of race, class, and gender dynamics. Parks and Hernandez help viewers interrogate how we read constructs of race and identity in relation to fashion culture, and how elitist and exclusive spaces are imprinted with power.

‘Working Girls’ Photographed and Memorialised

While taken and kept in obscurity, snapshots revealing the lives of 19th century working girls have come to light in San Francisco. Believed to be the earliest known photographs taken within an American brothel, the collection of William Goldman photographs currently on display at the Sorokko Gallery are both rare and insightful.

The images date to the 1890s and depict prostitutes associated with a brothel in Reading, Pennsylvania. The snapshots are posed, with playful and individualised compositions. Some images are whole, while some have been cut or torn into cloud-like shapes, giving them a dreamy, surreal quality. All of the images offer a glimpse into the daily lives and minds of the traditionally mysterious brothel girls. 

25 of Goldman’s ethereal photographs are on display in the Sorokko Gallery. The exhibition, which runs from November 15th to December 9th, coincides with the publishing of a book on the same collection by Robert Flynn Johnson, entitled Working Girls: An American Brothel, Circa 1892. Johnson, art historian and curator emeritus for the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, discovered the collection nearly 15 years ago and is the reason gallery owners and collectors Serge and Tatiana Sorokko came into possession of the photographs. The book features essays from author and professor of history Ruth Rosen, as well as curator and fashion historian Denitta Sewell. It also features a foreword by burlesque star Dita Von Teese. 

Von Teese brings attention to dressing for seduction, giving mention to the striped or patterned stockings all the women pictured wear. She asserts that individuality, allure and confidence intersect within this garment. She also discusses the empowerment which this series of photographs may have offered those depicted, giving them the opportunity to be represented more or less as they wished. The women in these photographs smile and appear relaxed, offering an unusual sense of fun and agency to their tabooed lifestyle. 

The subversion of Victorian morals and cultural norms which these images represent makes them especially significant for historians of fashion and photography alike.

All images are William Goldman photographs from the Sorokko Gallery, made available by CNN Style.