I recently went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to an exhibition of the work of Gordon Parks, one of the most celebrated photographers of all time. The exhibition’s 42 photographs were from a series originally meant to accompany a Life magazine photo essay, but for unknown reasons, the story was never published.
In 1948, Parks was the first African American photographer hired by Life magazine. The images for the unpublished photo essay depict the realities of life under segregation in 1950. Parks returned to his hometown, Fort Scott, Kansas, and then other Midwestern cities to track down and photograph each of his childhood classmates.
The experience of mining his childhood memories and the work on the “Back to Fort Scott,” seemed to have inspired him to write The Learning Tree in 1963, his best-selling novel about growing up poor in Kansas.
Once completed, Parks’ Fort Scott photo essay never appeared in Life. Most of the photos were never before on view until this exhibition at the Boston MFA. The reason remains a mystery, although the U.S. entry into the Korean War that summer had a major impact on the content of its pages for some time. The magazine’s editors did try to resuscitate the story early in April of 1951 only to have it passed over by the news of President Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur.
The story of what happened to this photo essay all those years ago should resonate with us who work hard to have our stories published, only to have them passed over for unknown reasons. But, as in the case of Gordon Parks’ photo essay, that doesn’t mean that the creative work won’t eventually find its audience.