It’s easy to see the beginnings of things, as Joan Didion aptly tells us in the opening sentence of her essay “Goodbye to All That,” but sometimes beginnings present themselves like runners in an interval start race.
In trying to pinpoint the precise moment when the exhibition Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story (July 9–November 10, 2019, at the Getty Center) was born, I can see that one beginning occurred in 2007. That was the year I started working at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where Parks’ retrospective Half Past Autumn had premiered a decade earlier. In gratitude for that show, the artist donated 227 prints to the Corcoran’s collection. For me, they functioned like a sinkhole, taking me deep into his career, which I’d come to know through various channels: his film Shaft; his contributions to the Farm Security Administration; his books that combined photography and poetry. Through these photographs I learned how Parks regarded one assignment, popularly known as “the Flávio story,” among the most important of his career. I filed away that fact in my mind.
Yet another beginning took place in 2015, by which time I had joined the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. That spring, the Getty Museum Photographs Council helped the museum to purchase 24 works by Gordon Parks. This important acquisition—the first photographs by Parks to enter the collection—concentrated on the Flávio story in large part because of its significance within Parks’ oeuvre. Discussions about the possibility of an exhibition on this incredible assignment quickly followed.
But the origin story of the exhibition is also tied to the photographs themselves, which date back to 1961. That spring, President John F. Kennedy announced the Alliance for Progress, an initiative created to stave off the spread of communism in Latin America through economic aid. As an outgrowth of that governmental program, popular picture magazine Life launched a five-part series called “Crisis in Latin America.”
For the second installment in the series, the magazine sent Parks to Brazil in March 1961 with the following assignment: “Find an impoverished father with a family of eight or ten children. Show how he earns a living, the amount he earns a year. Explore his political leanings. Is he a Communist or about to become one? Look into his personal life, his religion, friends, his dreams, frustrations. What about his children—their schools, their health and medical problems, their chances for a better life?”
By that point in his career, Parks had worked for the FSA, freelanced for Vogue, and been employed as a Life staff photographer for more than ten years. Perhaps his eminence in the field and veteran standing at Life, and presumably a self-confidence in his abilities, empowered him to all but abandon his editor’s directive shortly after he had arrived in Rio de Janeiro and visited Catacumba favela. That is where he encountered the industrious, charismatic 12-year-old boy named Flávio da Silva who would become his main subject.
Over the course of several weeks spent in the favela, Parks documented the boy as he cared for his seven siblings and performed household chores while his parents, Jose and Nair, were working. Debilitating asthma attacks punctuated these daily activities.
As someone who grew up in abject poverty, Parks empathized and understood the challenges that confronted Flávio. The photographer felt compelled to help, even if he “was perhaps playing God” by intervening in Flávio’s life and hoping to positively impact his destiny, as he later reflected.
When Parks returned from Rio to Life headquarters in New York, he lobbied for a major photo essay dedicated to Flávio. But decisions about copy, image selection, and presentation fell to Life’s editors and advisors. While Life staff regarded photographs “with the sort of reverence and awe generally ascribed to fine art” and let “photographers be ‘artists,’”(1) photojournalists employed by the magazine had little control over how pictures generated for assignments would be cropped, captioned, or contextualized for publication.
In the case of Parks’ reportage from Brazil, editors initially distilled the story down to one photograph. But, fortuitously for Parks, the concurrent appearance of an article in The New York Times about the need for sustained aid to Latin America convinced Life staff to publish a 12-page photo essay titled “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty” in the June 21, 1961 issue. In addition to reproducing 11 photographs by Parks—all of them sequenced and presented in a bold graphic design by art director Bernard Quint—the story included a photograph by Parks’ guide and translator José Gallo, which showed the photographer in the favela. Entries from a diary that Parks kept while in Brazil also appeared at the end of the story, situating him as both the author of this story and a character in it.
Soon after the photo essay began to circulate, the magazine recognized that “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty” amounted to a blockbuster. The response from Life’s readers was immediate and overwhelming; in total, the magazine received 3,635 letters and approximately $30,000 in unsolicited donations in an effort to assist Flávio, his family, and the favela. Life’s publisher C.D. Jackson noted that he “had never seen any reaction from readers quite as spontaneous as this.” In an effort to capitalize on public interest, and motivated by Flávio’s dire health prognosis, the magazine quickly established “The Flavio Fund” to administer the funds that magazine readers had contributed. They also sent Parks back to Brazil as part of a follow-up story.
On his second trip to Rio, Parks made some photographs and shot footage for what eventually became his first film, Flavio, all while helping to relocate the da Silva family from the favela to a new home (purchased with funds provided by Life’s readers) in the nearby suburb of Guadalupe.
But his principal assignment involved the “rescue” of Flávio: Parks had been tasked with obtaining permission from Jose and Nair da Silva for Time Inc., the parent company of Life, to assume temporary custody of their son and bring him to Denver, where the Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital had offered to treat Flávio’s bronchial asthma for two years. His parents concluded that the prospect of free medical care represented the best hope for their son’s survival. In early July 1961, Parks and Flávio traveled together from Rio to the United States, where Flávio remained until 1963.
Anticipating that readers would welcome an update, Life hired local stringer Hiraku “Carl” Iwasaki to document Flávio’s first days in Denver, just as they had enlisted the Rio-based photographer Paulo Muniz to document Flávio’s departure from Rio. Images by Muniz and Iwasaki anchored a second photo essay depicting Flávio and his family, which appeared in Life about one month after “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty.” Iwasaki’s full-color portrait of Flávio, smiling and resting in the hospital as if the picture of health, graced the cover of the magazine. It unabashedly reinforced the message communicated in the title of the article associated with it: “The Compassion of Americans Brings a New Life for Flavio.”
Although hugely popular and generally well-received in the United States, Life’s report on poverty in Brazil through the guise of Flávio was met with criticism, particularly in Brazil. One picture magazine, O Cruzeiro, charged Parks with staging his reportage and lambasted Life for portraying poverty as if endemic to Brazil. To reinforce its point, the magazine sent staff photographer Henri Ballot to the United States to photograph “a Flavio in New York” and intentionally “followed the same script and pagination” as Parks’ story.(2)
While this spurred a war between Life and O Cruzeiro that lasted for months, Parks was already busy with other projects and assignments, and Flávio remained unaware in Denver. But new chapters of this story would be written later, such as when Parks revisited the subject in the 1970s (for his book Flavio) and 1990s (for a documentary film).
The next chapter begins when Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story opens at the Getty Center, where more people will discover the complexity of this unbelievable narrative, a testament to the power of the humanist tradition in photography.