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Gordon Parks and Moneta Sleet, two giants behind the lens

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 7/23/2012, 1:41 p.m.
Beyond their common photographic gifts and their penchant to document the dynamic world they inhabited,...
Gordon Parks and Moneta Sleet, two giants behind the lens

Beyond their common photographic gifts and their penchant to document the dynamic world they inhabited, Gordon Parks and Moneta Sleet were fond of focusing the camera on children.

Those children are showcased in a variety of ways at the Schomburg Center, where the works of Parks (1912-2006) and Sleet (1926-1996) command two galleries.

Parks began compiling his impressive images almost immediately upon arriving in Harlem in the early '40s. This habit continued in Washington, D.C., where he captured the youngsters at play gleefully posing for his portraits.

"Hey, mister, take my picture," is something Sleet heard throughout his magnificent career, especially during his long tenure as the featured photographer for Ebony magazine. He often answered those children's requests, and an ensemble of those photos occupies an entire wall of the exhibition.

Of course, when you're talking about two of the nation's most prominent photographers, pictures of children are but a small part of their collections. Sleet is well represented by his Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Coretta Scott King and her daughter Bernice at the funeral services for Martin Luther King Jr.

Sleet, who traveled widely, including several trips to Africa to cover presidential inaugurations, was also present at the funeral services for Malcolm X, and his photo of the grief-stricken Betty Shabazz compares favorably with his photo of Mrs. King.

Parks' versatility, under the rubric of "100 Moments," curated by Deborah Willis to commemorate his centennial, is fully displayed at the exhibit, and his remarkable sojourn is also chronicled on two computers and projected on a wall panel.

Always fascinated by the working class, Parks' study of charwoman Ella Watson posing with a mop and broom in front of the American flag is expanded to show her in situations beyond her duties as a cleaning woman.

Like Sleet, Parks was an extraordinary artist who intuitively understood how to stage a photo shoot and capture the majesty of an individual, whether it was Duke Ellington or Muhammad Ali (in Sleet's case) or Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright (in Parks' aperture).

At last Wednesday's opening, such celebrated photographers as Adger Cowans, Jules Allen, Tony Barboza, Danny Dawson, Azim Thomas, Tyrone Rasheed and Bob Gore were on hand, exchanging memories they had shared with the esteemed subjects.

In the Langston Hughes Auditorium, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Schomburg Center's executive director, told the packed house that their planned budget cut had been reduced from $43 million to $3 million. The news was greeted with resounding applause.

Applause should also be extended to Willis and the Schomburg for assembling such a stunning array of photos from two photographers whose monumental documentation mirrors their astonishing lives.

The exhibit will stand until Dec. 1.