A man’s fixed gaze rises from an uncovered manhole, his bare hands grip the asphalt, his face darkened by the shadowy night. Without context, this arresting image could evoke a more sinister interpretation, but photographer Gordon Parks had a much more poignant message with this 1952 work, Emerging Man.
As the first African American staff photographer and writer for LIFE magazine, Parks used his camera lens to document the early years of the American Civil Rights Movement and the pervasive injustices he witnessed throughout the country.
‘While much of Parks’ photography is documentary in nature,’ explains Rebecca Jones, Associate Specialist and Head of Sale for the Photographs department in New York, ‘this image is a fantastic example of his ability to expand from the objective and really tell a story.’
Emerging Man was part of a larger photo-essay for LIFE titled A Man Becomes Invisible, inspired by his friend Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. In Ellison’s tale a young black man finds himself in situations where his innocence is exploited, leaving him to make challenging life choices.
‘Emerging Man presents a scene that is not directly from Ellison’s novel, but rather an interpretation of the themes within the story,’ says Jones. ‘It’s an imagining of how the character would engage with Harlem at that time.
Parks contributed fashion photographs to Vogue, in addition to capturing on film some of the era’s most prominent figures, including Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X
‘Parks forces the viewer to come eye-to-eye with the subject,’ she continues. ‘This isn’t just a work of art, but rather a commentary on the human condition.’
Kansas-born Parks, who was largely self-taught, honed his skills in the early Forties on a photography project for the U.S. Farm Security Administration. He became known mostly for his images showing poverty, racism and black urban life, but also contributed fashion photographs to both LIFE and Vogue from the 1940s to the 1960s. Later, he captured on film some of the Civil Rights era’s most prominent figures, including Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
Parks subesequently applied his talents to music, writing and filmmaking. In 1969 he became the first African American artist to produce and direct a major Hollywood film, The Learning Tree. He followed that up in 1971 with the more celebrated Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree.
This is the first time that an image from the LIFE photo-essay has come to auction. Emerging Man, which will be offered in Photographs online (19 May-3 June), stands as a testament to Parks’ lifelong commitment to illustrating the injustices of racism and class division.