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Incognito

On Gordon Parks’s photographs and Sophie Calle’s recent demand not to be filmed

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Mobile teacher Joanne Thornton Wilson and her niece, Shirley Kirksey, were photographed by Gordon Parks outside the Mobile Saenger Theatre in 1956. Parks was on assignment for Life magazine, which did not publish the photo at the time. Courtesy: the Gordon Parks Foundation

Mobile teacher Joanne Thornton Wilson and her niece, Shirley Kirksey, were photographed by Gordon Parks outside the Mobile Saenger Theatre in 1956. Parks was on assignment for Life magazine, which did not publish the photo at the time. Courtesy: the Gordon Parks Foundation

Since her early series ‘The Sleepers’ (1979), Sophie Calle has used photography and writing to deal with the intimate subjects of vulnerability, trust, and voyeurism. A large overview of Calle’s work is on view at A3 Arndt, Berlin, and Calle also spoke as part of the European Month of Photography 2016, at Berlin’s C/O, on 1 October. During her talk, she was surrounded by a retrospective from the late American photographer, Gordon Parks, ‘I Am You. Selected Works 1942–1978.’ Parks’s images presented an unforeseen, subtle challenge to Calle’s own social experiments.

Parks often pictured Jim Crow America. And as I listened to Calle, my eyes kept drifting to his photographs. In one, a woman named Joan Thornton stands outside a theatre, with her niece, Shirley Kirksey. It’s dusk. Thornton is wearing a lacy dress, in sea-foam colour; her niece a white version of the same. They could be any people, in any place – except they are African-American women in Mobile, Alabama, in 1956. A neon sign over their heads reads: ‘Colored Entrance’.

At one point, Calle suspended the talk to demand that the audience stop filming her. It was a strange request from an artist who has followed people on the street as an artwork. However it also gave a rare glimpse into her sensitivity to images, and the way they can abridge, or short-circuit, lived experience. These days in America – Parks’s photos reminded me – video can save the lives of people who, because of prejudicial responses to race, are threatened every time they enter public space.

In this way, Parks’s images seemed to cast Calle’s analyses of vulnerability and trust – via photography and writing – as privileged exercises. But Calle also practices a sneaky, revolutionary vocation. She re-wires rituals of observation and pursuit through which men often assert sovereignty in public space. Parks’s and Calle’s meeting on that evening was unexpected, and went mostly unacknowledged. But you could feel them conversing, incognito.

Main image: Gordon Parks, Nursemaid’s Kerchief by Lilly Daché, New York,1952. Courtesy: © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Mitch Speed is a writer based in Berlin, Germany.

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