Gordon Parks (1912 – 2006) – renowned photographer, writer, poet, musician, and composer – was born and raised in the segregated town of Fort Scott in Southeast Kansas. Parks left his hometown at fifteen and did not return until twenty years later, in 1950, as LIFE magazine’s first African American staff photographer. The return sparked a new relationship between the artist and Kansas. In 1968 Parks filmed part of his first motion picture, The Learning Tree, in Fort Scott. In 1970 he visited Kansas State University to receive an honorary degree. Three years later, he delivered a convocation speech and opened an exhibition of photographs that he donated to the university. The gift was the first the artist had curated for a public institution.

This exhibition presents selections from the Gordon Parks gift to K-State and explores the ways in which Parks sought to project himself to his fellow Kansans — his experiences and his points of view — through the images he chose for the university. The photographs constitute a kind of self-portrait spanning his career and his interests. The number of images devoted to certain topics and the size of the works help signal some of the artist’s intentions.

The exhibition’s title is the first line of a poem Parks wrote for a special insert in the Manhattan Mercury newspaper, which sponsored a 1984 visit to Manhattan by Parks as artist-in-residence. A small group of images from this visit and another in 1985 serve as a coda for the exhibition.

Homeward to the Prairie I Come is part of the K-State Gordon Parks Project initiated by the Beach Museum of Art and K-State Department of English. The English department has launched a website, The Learning Tree: A Gordon Parks Digital Archive, which provides access to archival materials and oral histories about the filming of The Learning Tree.

Generous support for this project provided by:

Platinum – Major Sponsors
Art Bridges
The Alms Group
Beach-Edwards Family Foundation
Friends of the Beach Museum of Art
Greater Manhattan Community Foundation’s Lincoln & Dorothy I. Deihl Community Grants Program
Weary Family Foundation

Gold Level Sponsors
Dan and Beth Bird
Steve and Debbie Saroff

A Note about Size

Parks selected a Masonite hardboard backing for the photographs he donated to K-State in 1973. The mounting adhesive leached into the images over time, damaging their surfaces. In 2016 – 2017, the museum partnered with the Gordon Parks Foundation to replace the original 1973 gift images with a set of authorized prints, selections of which are exhibited here. Some of the new prints differ in size from the 1973 gift prints. Object labels indicate where there are discrepancies.

For his gift to K-State, Parks used size to organize his photographs. Large images introduce themes, while smaller images elaborate on those themes. The visual effect is like a solar system, in which gravitational forces bind smaller bodies to larger ones.

Two of the largest photographs Parks donated to K-State came from his series about Flávio da Silva and his life in a notorious favela, or slum, in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro.

A photograph of models wearing gowns by French designer Jacques Fath was the second largest image Parks donated to K-State. The choice of scale highlights the image’s similarity to portraits of social elites in the European grand manner represented by the work of such artists as American expatriate John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925). The entire group of fashion images suggests that Parks was intentionally drawing parallels between his photography and grand European painted portraits.

Parks took these photographs of Muhammad Ali for his LIFE assignment about the boxer’s fight with British heavyweight Henry Cooper in London in May of 1966. Six years after the original photo-essay, Parks curated these photographs with a different mindset. Four of the seven present Ali in poses and compositions reminiscent of iconic ancient sculptures, especially of kouros, or standing nude male figures from the Archaic Greek period (ca. 600 – 400 BCE), as well as the Terme Boxer of Quirinal from the Greek Hellenistic period (ca. 100 BCE). Ancient Greek sculptures symbolized physical and spiritual excellence using the Caucasian body type exclusively. The same white male body symbolizes the physical ideal in twentieth-century American culture. Framing Muhammad Ali — with his African facial features and dark skin — as the modern face of beauty and heroism was Parks’s response.

Flávio amuses smaller brothers and sisters, from the series Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty, 1961, printed in 2013

Gelatin silver print
43 ¼ x 60 ¼ inches (1973 print size: 39 x 60 inches)

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2013.208

Sick and exhausted from week’s care of the family, Flávio rests on Sunday when his mother is free to look after brothers and sisters. “I am not afraid of death,” he explained earnestly to Parks. “But what will they do after?”, from the series, Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty, 1961, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print
24 x 20 inches (1973 print size: 45 7/8 x 29 9/16 inches)

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2017.413

The family’s day begins at dawn. In the biggest room of the shack — it is 6 x 10 feet — 12-year-old Flávio gets himself up. From the series Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty, 1961, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print
20 x 24 inches (1973 print size: 30 1/2 x 43 inches)

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2013.468

Home for Da Silva family is hillside jumble of squatters’ huts beneath Rio’s famous statue of Christ, from the series Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty, 1961, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print
24 x 20 inches (1973 print size: 40 x 29 inches)

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2013.404

In the shadowy slum into which she was born in Rio de Janeiro, 3-year-old Isabel da Silva cries to herself after vainly seeking comfort from her exhausted father, José. from the series Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty, 1961, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print
20 x 24 inches (1973 print size: 29 9/16 x 43 1/8 inches)

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2013.400

Show-stoppers of collections were fabulous ball dresses like these Fath designs, from the series A Hectic Week of Paris Showings, 1951, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print
20 x 24 inches (1973 print size: 37 x 44 inches)

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2013.394

Balenciaga sheath cocktail dress, 1950, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2013.347

Muhammad Ali, from the series The Redemption of the Champion, 1966, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print
24 x 20 inches (1973 print size: 44 1/8 x 31 1/8 inches)

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2017.410

Muhammad Ali, from the series The Redemption of the Champion, 1966, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2017.464

Muhammad Ali fists after match with Henry Cooper, London, England, from the series The Redemption of the Champion, 1966, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2017.463

Muhammad Ali sparring, from the series The Redemption of the Champion, 1966, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2017.386

Muhammad Ali, from the series The Redemption of the Champion, 1966, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print
20 x 16 inches (1973 print size: 30 1/8 x 20 1/8 inches)

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2017.387

Muhammad Ali with child, from the series The Redemption of the Champion, 1966, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print

ift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2017.426

Muhammad Ali at Lord’s Cricket Ground, St. John’s Wood, London, England, from the series The Redemption of the Champion, 1966, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2017.417

Patrician: Comtesse Alain de la Falaise, noted in Parisian society for her slim figure, patronizes Schiaparelli. Here she wears exotic cotton evening dress reminiscent of styles in the late 20s (Maxime de la Falaise), from the series Paris Fashions, 1949, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2013.362

Alexander Calder, 1952, printed in 2017

Gelatin silver print
24 x 20 inches (1973 print size: 41 x 35 3/8 inches)

Gift of Gordon Parks and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2013.407