“Everyone spend a lot of money tonight, let’s keep the legacy alive and the dream alive,” the musician and art collector Swizz Beatz told the assembled guests at the Gordon Parks Foundation’s annual awards dinner last night. Behind the doors of Cipriani’s grand location on East 42nd Street, the crowd was buzzing, teenage recipients of the foundation’s scholarship program mingling with artists Kehinde Wiley and Mickalene Thomas and designer Dao-Yi Chow.
Devin Allen, who received a fellowship in 2017 through the foundation and has spent the last year teaching photography to children in New York, told me, “The kids don’t care about the technical stuff, until they get pissed that their photo comes out too dark.” He laughed. “Then I say, So now, you want to learn about ISO.”
The spirit of Gordon Parks—the storied photographer whose expansive career included collaborating with writer Ralph Ellison and directing Shaft (1971)—was certainly in the room, as many attendees came with their point-and-shoot cameras hanging around their neck. Among those stealing moments was photographer Jamel Shabazz. “This is my Fujifilm 100 here,” he said, jubilant in a sleek white suit. Later in the evening, he used that camera to take portraits of some of those on hand. Naturally, the line for the photo-op wrapped around the room.
A serene Sally Mann, one of the night’s honorees, floated through the crowd, and Spike Lee, characteristically casual in his trademark pageboy cap and an upside-down American flag on his denim jacket, darted through the space, stopping to say hello to Leslie Parks Bailey, a chef and Gordon Parks’ daughter, and writer Jelani Cobb. Cobb would later introduce writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, another honoree at the event, with what he claimed is the only poem he’s ever written: “If ink were blood, I would have known you were my brother from birth.”
Two auctions punctuated the affair, led by Sotheby’s exec Hugh Hildesley. The auctioneer mirrored the buoyant energy of the room, exuberantly declaring at one point, “This is all deductible! For the $2,500 level of scholarship bidding, you could have breakfast at the Carlyle.”
The backdrop for the festivities were several blown-up images of Gordon Parks’s photo American Gothic, Washington, D.C., a portrait of a janitorial worker named Ella Watson holding both a broom and a mop in front of the American flag, looking strong and defiant. A print of the image was the final lot of the auction, and Coates kicked off the bidding at $25,000. Eventually, the piece was won for $150,000 by the businessman and collector Ronald Perelman.
Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, another honoree, said in her speech, of that photo, “Sometimes people don’t see the connection between art and civil rights, but just look at this photograph. I can argue cases, and I can litigate courts, but just look at this photograph.” A print of the photograph was also presented to the descendants of Watson.
Before Mavis Staples closed out the evening, Shabazz was honored, taking the stage to a standing ovation. “This is one of the best nights of my life, and this is what it feels like to see hope and opportunity in this country,” he said. “Art being a universal language is important in these difficult times.” The artist, who served for twenty years as a corrections officer on Rikers Island in New York, photographing his experiences there, pointed to the Fujifilm 100 around his neck and said, almost choking up, “This camera has been my choice of weapon.”