In March 1968, Gordon Parks published a portrait of an African-American child with disheveled clothes in Life magazine. His lips were swollen and cracked from eating plaster, in a futile attempt to ward off hunger. His eyes were plaintive and haunting.
Richard Fontenelle was too young to understand, but he and his family became the faces of urban poverty for millions of Americans. The photo essay Parks produced — “A Harlem Family,” which is now on exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem — changed Fontenelle’s life, and the lives of every member of his family, forever. It sparked in him a desire to succeed, and a lifelong friendship with Parks.
Three days after the show opened, Fontenelle died of heart attack. He was 48 years old.
Yet his was a life of triumph savored: Of the eight Fontenelle children who appeared in “A Harlem Family,” he was the only one who lived past his 30th birthday and built a stable family life. He gave much of the credit for his success to his mother and to Parks, who became a father figure to him.
“His whole life kind of centered around that event,” Fontenelle’s widow, Michelle, said of his feelings about being in the groundbreaking photo essay. “I guess he took from that ‘What can I do with my life not to be like my brothers and sisters? What can I do with my life not to cause my mother this grief? What can I do with my life to make her life better?’”
Telling the Fontenelles’ story was a personal crusade for Parks. As he recalled in his memoir “To Smile in Autumn,” the assignment came at the end of the long, hot summer of 1967, a period of urban uprisings in black America. His editors asked him — the only African-American photographer on the magazine’s staff — to explain to them and to Life’s readers why the nation’s inner cities were going up in flames.
To Parks, the answers were clear: racism and poverty. To bring these political and economic abstractions to life, he knew that he had to focus on the daily lives of a single, impoverished black family.
The “cold hawk of winter was over the ghetto,” Parks remembered, by the time he introduced himself to Norman and Bessie Fontenelle, Richard’s parents, and convinced them to allow him to tell their story. They were a family in deep distress. Norman had been laid off from his job and could not find steady work. He and his wife struggled to feed their eight children and to keep their fourth-floor Harlem apartment warm.
Parks left his camera at home during the first week that he spent with them. Instead, he got to know the family and allowed them to become comfortable with his presence in their cramped apartment. By the time he pulled out his camera, he said in the 2004 documentary film “Family Portrait,” “I was practically in the family … I was like Uncle Gordon.”
During the month that he spent with the Fontenelles, Parks took hundreds of photographs. The 25 that appeared in “A Harlem Family” were spread over 16 pages, printed in gritty black and white. They seemed to claim the authority of documentary truth, yet their dark tones and shadows hinted at the subjectivity of Parks’s vision by refusing to reveal everything that he and his camera saw.
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