How to See

Roblin Meeks
5 min readJun 16, 2021
Gordon Parks, Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1963

The Jack Shaiman Gallery’s decision to split its “Gordon Parks: Half and the Whole” exhibit in NYC made some sense. The West 24th Street location was given over to his potent images of social-justice protest — crowds holding signs and newspaper headlines about Blacks killed by police that could (and do) halo protests today, raised hands, a young Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X each sharp as a powerful idea, Muhammad Ali ready to fight in multiple rings. And police — glowering at those crowds, taking people away or itching to. My favorite image of this show is “Untitled, Harlem, New York” from 1963 (above) that shows a boy casually leaning on a police barricade as he watches a speech being given in the background. The police barricade reads “DO NOT CROSS,” but the boy and the speaker are pictured in the act of crossing, of pushing against the familiar barriers erected to contain them.

The 20th Street gallery showcased many works that Gordon Parks is best known for, portraits vividly picturing a wide range of Black experience in America during segregation. Parks shows us people subjugated by their race but also living full lives, experiencing joy and leisure and boredom and each other. Parks is originally from Fort Scott, Kansas, near where my father and his side of the family originate, and I knew somewhat about him. I’d seen many of these photographs in magazines or on the web (the Gordon Parks Foundation is a must follow on Instagram), but I had never witnessed them in person and at this size. The colors are nothing short of astonishing, rich and warm and ubiquitous. It’s also impossible to miss that so many of these photos contain the word “Colored,” designating entrances or areas or facilities that Blacks were restricted to, starkly revealing what life full of color looks like and the absurdity of prejudice against color or assigning “colored” a second-class status. Life, after all, is full of color, if you look.

Gordon Parks, Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956

It’s tempting, I think, to understand visiting a gallery as engaging in seeing in its purest form. That is, of course, why we go to galleries and museums — to look closely (while not touching). In fact, think just a little more, and museum going is about looking at the results of some intense

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Roblin Meeks

Essayist, lapsed professional philosopher, associate dean of ice cream. Author of creative nonfiction about work, love, self and other stuff. Welcome, pals.