Second life for photographer Gordon Parks

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It’s been said that the artist never dies.

And the same for the art produced.

The late Gordon Parks, whose collection has found a new home in Pleasantville, saw the good, the bad and the ugly in his lifetime and not always in that order or equal amounts.

To document the life he saw — racism, discrimination and poverty — he chose a camera as his “weapon,” as he said in his autobiography, “A Choice of Weapons.”

The pioneering African-American photojournalist was also a film director (“Shaft) , a writer (“The Learning Tree”) and a musician. He was the first black photographer at Life magazine. It was there that he met and became friends with Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., a managing editor. Their friendship evolved so much so that Parks would become a regular at the Kunhardt’s Chappaqua home, said grandson Peter W. Kunhardt Jr.

In addition to being an editor at Life, Kunhardt was part of Kunhardt Productions, which has created numerous documentaries. The latest documentary is “Living With Lincoln,” which shows how several generations of the family ended up dedicating themselves to collecting and preserving photos and artifacts relating to Abraham Lincoln. Known as the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection, it was recently sold to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the Yale University Art Gallery. The collection contains more than 73,000 items, including 57,000 photographic prints, as well as thousands of other items.

The collection was first kept in the home of Philip B. Kunhardt Jr.’s grandfather before moving on to the Reader’s Digest and then to the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College.

It was while the collection was at Reader’s Digest that Parks came to see it.

Amazed at what he saw, in particular photographer Mathew Brady’s work, Parks said he wanted to preserve his legacy in much the same manner.

His visit came none too soon. Parks died on March 7, 2006.

His friend and colleague, Kunhardt, died two weeks later on March 21.

After the funerals, the work began. A strategy needed to be implemented.

There was a lot of behind-the scenes work to be completed.

The negatives, transparencies and prints all needed to be located.

In 2007, the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation acquired Parks’ collection and created The Gordon Parks Foundation, of which Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. is the executive director.

The collection, which contains more than 20,000 negatives and 4,000 prints, moved to Purchase College in 2009 where it was cataloged and preserved.

Next came a conversation with Gerhard Steidl, considered the premier photography book publisher. The German publisher took on five decades of Parks’ photography and in 2012 released the five-volume box set “Gordon Parks: Collected Works.”

The box set served as a “launching pad” of sorts for what was to come, Kunhardt said.

Part of the plan was to allow curators at museums and galleries to create exhibits or books that examine specific sections of Parks’ overwhelming body of work. For example, “Gordon Parks: Segregation Story” is a book and a show on exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through June 21. In addition, the Adamson Gallery in Washington, D.C., which also makes high-end digital prints for the foundation, is hosting the “Segregation Story” exhibit as well.

The Gordon Parks Foundation’s new home at 48 Wheeler Ave. in Pleasantville will also exhibit the “Segregation Story,” beginning May 15.

Another way in which the foundation carries on Parks’ vision and good works is through scholarships. Two scholarships are given to each of the following institutions each academic year:

• Gordon Parks Foundation Arts Scholarship to Harlem School of the Arts;

• Nikon/Gordon Parks Scholarship to School of Art + Design, Purchase College;

• HBO/Gordon Parks Scholarship to Ghetto Film School;

• Gordon Parks Centennial Scholarship to National YoungArts Foundation;

• Gordon Parks Centennial Scholarship to Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation; and

• Macy’s/Gordon Parks Scholarship to Fashion Institute of Technology.

It is the hope of Kunhardt that Parks’ pro-active humanitarianism continues through fresh young eyes looking through lenses.

The foundation will be hosting an awards dinner June 2 at Cipriani on Wall Street in Manhattan. Those honored will be Laurent Claquin, head of Kering Americas; artist Thornton Dial; artist JR; Usher Raymond IV, singer and entertainer; and Robert De Niro and Grace Hightower De Niro, who will receive the Patron of the Arts Award. Pharrell Williams will be performing. For tickets, go to gpfgala@buckleyhallevents.com.

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