In the late 1930s, Gordon Parks began his career as a young photographer right here in the Twin Cities. He worked as a staff photographer at the St. Paul Recorder and the Minneapolis Spokesman, local black-owned newspapers. He shot the latest fashions for Frank Murphy’s Department Store in downtown St. Paul, and had his first solo exhibition at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in the Rondo neighborhood.

Though more often remembered for his photojournalism, during his early career, Parks focused on portraiture and fashion photography. He maintained an interest in both throughout his life. He began by taking portraits of Twin Cities society women and went on to contribute to Glamour and Vogue, to shoot Parisian fashions for Life, and to co-found and serve as artistic director for Essence magazine.

Parks viewed style as a means of self-expression, a way for people to define themselves and their communities, and a weapon against prejudice and stereotypes.

Gordon Parks: A Homecoming pairs works from Parks’s years in the Twin Cities with pictures inspired by them. Some of these pictures are the latest iteration of Lovin’ The Skin I’m In, an initiative that Robin Hickman-Winfield founded in 2004. For this exhibition, Hickman-Winfield collaborated with students at Gordon Parks High School, Frank Murphy’s Fashions, and the Saint Paul Hotel to stage photographs inspired by Parks’s time in the Twin Cities and his interest in capturing beauty and fostering self-esteem.

This installation was organized in collaboration with Robin Hickman-Winfield, Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. Special thanks to Phoebe McGowan, Dawn Selle, Dr. Catherine Squires, and Tracey Williams-Dillard.

Florence L. Fletcher (born Ward) was one of Gordon Parks’s favorite models during his early career as a photojournalist in the Twin Cities. Parks included another portrait of her, titled A Girl and a Goblet, among his pictures of beautiful local African American society women, published in the St. Paul Recorder and the Minneapolis Spokesman (see the images below). Fletcher’s family papers and photographs are preserved in the Minnesota Historical Society Archives.

Andrea Ellen Reed, A Choice of Weapons: Elegance and Grace, 2020

Courtesy of Robin Hickman-Winfield and SoulTouch Productions

In 2004, Robin Hickman-Winfield founded Lovin’ the Skin I’m In, an international movement dedicated to fostering self-esteem and positive self-image among young women and to teaching the importance of sisterhood, teamwork, and cooperation. In her latest project, she partnered with members of the Gordon Parks High School Lovin’ Sisterhood. The group posed for photographer Andrea Ellen Reed at the St. Paul Hotel dressed in formal wear from Frank Murphy’s Fashions, referencing two locations of significance to Parks’s early years in the Twin Cities. 

In 1930, shortly after arriving in Minnesota as a teenager, Parks worked at the St. Paul Hotel as a waiter. In October 1939, Frank and Madeline Murphy hired Parks to take pictures of the latest fashions for their renowned department store, one of his first opportunities as a commercial photographer. (Originally located at 360 St. Peter Street in St. Paul, the store is under new ownership and is located in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.) In some photographs, Hickman-Winfield and her students re-create iconic early pictures by Parks, as well as pictures by Jamel Shabazz, like Church Ladies, on view in the “Love” section of A Choice of Weapons.

Minneapolis-based photographer, Andrea Ellen Reed received her MFA from The Academy of Art University, San Francisco, California. Her work focuses on representing the lives of Black Americans and has been exhibited across the United States and Europe.

Special thanks to: Krista Wolter and her staff (Frank Murphy’s Fashions), Shelly Fountain and Ashley Wandrick (Gordon Parks High School Lovin’ leaders), Megan Orme Voelke (Saint Paul Hotel Assistant General Manager), Andrea Ellen Reed, Tameka Mua Jones and KiJana Jones (makeup artists and Lovin’ mentors), Marilyn Campbell, Autumn Frazier, Angie and Dorothy Nins (Lovin’ members), and Scott Takushi (Lovin’ media mentor).

Left: Portrait of Annette Hatton by Gordon Parks, ca. mid-1930s. Above: Portraits from the Lovin’ The Skin I’m In series by Andrea Ellen Reed, inspired by Gordon Parks’s portraits.

Lovin’ the Skin We’re In

Below, members of the Gordon Parks Lovin’ Sisterhood reflect on the impact of the Lovin’ program and the Gordon Parks-themed photoshoot. 

I’m loving the skin I’m in because of the space I’m in and all the great opportunities. I’m not feeling stressed, I just feel GREAT.

I’m proud to be an African girl. I’m a Black Queen. My skin makes me feel confident and strong, like a free woman.

There are positive sisters around me.

I felt like the moment was special for me, for us. We all looked so beautiful, like Queens. I don’t really like my body because everyone says I’m so skinny, but the dress showed my curves. I felt so confident.

I’m Black and Beautiful, my mom always told me to love my skin.

The opportunity was an honor and I felt confident and beautiful in the red dress. All of the girls were very pretty, the experience boosted their self-esteem; we felt so much better about ourselves.

I was born this beautiful color and no one can tell me otherwise.

My experience made me feel like I was a girl, because I was always a tomboy. This opportunity was such an honor. It made me feel like a Queen. I felt like nothing could ruin that moment. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. When you look at my picture, please see a glowing young woman—a Queen—shining. Think of me telling my story, our story, of an amazing experience. In that moment I was truly loving the skin I’m in.

As you look at me in this picture, see a young woman who owned the moment. Any good moment can be yours. Love the skin you’re in.

Thank you Mr. Parks for helping us love the skin we’re in!

Shaniah Williams (Frank Murphy’s Merchandising Intern and Project Coordinator), Lailanie Funchie, Hibaq Abdi, Reyna Moctezuma, Randa Bue, Dominique Harris, Shawntiana Terrell, and Samira Omar

Above: Map of notable places from Gordon Parks’s time in Saint Paul. Below: Front page scans of the St. Paul Recorder and Minneapolis Spokesman newspapers with Parks’s portraits featured, 1938-40, courtesy of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.

November 30, 1912 – Gordon Parks is born in Fort Scott, Kansas.

May 9, 1928 – Parks moves to St. Paul after his mother dies to live with his sister, Maggie Lee, and her husband.

Winter 1928-1929 – Parks’s brother-in-law kicks him out of the house, leaving him homeless.

1929 – Parks moves in with another sister, Lillian, and later stays at a boarding house in St. Paul.

1930-1934 – Parks works various jobs in the Twin Cities, including as a busboy at the Minnesota Club (4th Street and Cedar Street in St. Paul), the St. Paul Hotel (350 N. Market Street in St. Paul), the Lowry Hotel (Wabasha Street N and W 4th Street in St. Paul), and the Curtis Hotel (327 10th Street S in Minneapolis)

February-March 1933 – Parks travels to New York with a band and stays in Harlem for six weeks.

April 1933 – Parks joins the Civilian Conservation Corps and is based in New Jersey.

July 1934 – Parks quits the CCC and moves back to Minneapolis with his wife, Sally Alvis.

1937 – Parks comes across a photography magazine while working on the North Coast Limited route of the Northern Pacific Railway, and is inspired to by a camera and pursue a career in photography.

February 13, 1938 – Parks shows his work in a symposium, “Race Relations in the United States Today,” during the Interracial Week at the Phyllis Wheatley House in Minneapolis.

March 25, 1938 – The St. Paul Recorder publishes Parks’s photograph of popularity contest entrants.

October 1938 – Parks divorces his wife and moves in with his sister in St. Paul.

October 28, 1938 – Parks’s portrait of Beatrice Franklin Boyd is published in St. Paul Recorder and Minneapolis Spokesman.

November 18, 1938 – Parks’s picture of members of the Cameo-Elite-Credjafawn Clubs’ Christmas benefit is published in Minneapolis Spokesman.

November 25, 1938 – Parks receives his first solo exhibition in the “Fine Arts Salon” at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul.

Spring 1939 – Parks and Sally Alvis remarry and move to a small apartment in St. Paul.

April 7, 1939 – Parks is hired as a staff photographer at the St. Paul Recorder.

April 21-23, 1939 – Parks works as a publicity photographer for the Festival of Nations in St. Paul and participates in the Negro Art Exhibit (showing his picture We’re Not Quite as Old as He).

May 19-August 18, 1939 – Parks’s photographs are published regularly in the St. Paul Recorder and Minneapolis Spokesman.

August 24, 1939 – Parks shows two photographs in an exhibition of Minnesota artists organized by the Baptist Young People’s Union.

October 1939 – Frank and Madeline Murphy hire Parks to photograph the latest fashions at Frank Murphy’s department store in St. Paul. Marva Louis (model, singer, and then wife of Boxer Joe Louis) sees the photographs and encourages Parks to move to Chicago.

November 24, 1939 – Parks’s picture of Rhoda Lee Escue is published in St. Paul Recorder and Minneapolis Spokesman.

July-September 1940 – Parks exhibits work in the American Negro Exposition in Chicago (including Hilda, Saturday Night in Harlem, Gone are the Days, and To Die or Not).

August 4, 1940St. Paul Pioneer Press publishes Hilda, Saturday Night in Harlem, and Gone are the Days from the American Negro Exposition in Chicago.

April 1941 – Parks moves to Chicago to pursue fashion photography with the help of Marva Louis.