and below) In these two photographs I tried to show what
little pulse remained downtown. The bus system was the
nerve center that spread throughout the city and I recalled
looking at Walker Evans' photographs of New York
subway passengers and how their many expressions caught
and motivated me.
© 2002, Gerald Parker, All Rights Reserved
"I guess it's never
easy to know why one does anything because the reasons that motivate us
in the first place are never the same in the end. I was young and full
of ambition, looking to make my mark in the world. I also knew the medium
of photography was undeniably the way to capture the truth about humanity.
I had a desperate need to try and understand myself, to find a purpose
on this planet. After having read James Joyce's `Portrait
of the Artist as a Young Man' it occurred to me that if I were to
see the world clearly and understand my destiny I must start by looking
where it all began, back to the streets of my youth."
The demise of a small town
ripped him apart. Brockton, Massachusetts, once a thriving industrial
town, was where Gerald Parker grew up. Between 1977 and 1980 Parker returned
and relentlessly recorded the pain of run-down neighborhoods, boarded
up stores, movie houses, and cheap bargain entrepreneurs. Walking the
streets he knew so well, he documented the lonely existence of barbers
as they sat in their empty shops reading the daily paper or stepping outside
to feed a crust of bread to the pigeons.
The pictures are disturbing, the scattered imagery taking in a culture
where people wait expressionless at a bus stop and a young man, stoned
and dangling a cigarette, lolls against a wall under the weathered sign
of an electrologist. Parker unlocks a door that is complicated by the
sheer emptiness of beauty. Yet, as he revisits his childhood, his own
recollections are haunting as he invites us to share his personal, artistic,
and philosophical stand.
Blinker Cafe was one of the many bars that occupied the
Polish section of Brockton. It stood next to the train
tracks that defined the dividing line to what we called
the village. I remember after this exposure of the old
boxer out front was made I turned and saw my mother passing
by. I don't think she really understood my mission
at that time. She died shortly after--like the whole
"If all this change had
taken place in such a short time it stood to reason that it was happening
in other places," he thought. "If I could document the true
essence of Brockton's decline it would be a valuable tool for future
generations. In retrospect, it was my idealistic response to a situation
in need and consequently my work barely raised an eyebrow.
"My journey was about the light of day, the smells and sounds, the
moment when the eyes and hand click the shutter. It was about the loneliness
and endless days of commitment and enduring financial turmoil. The deeper
I became involved, the deeper my obsession took control of me. I had a
way to speak for the beleaguered people who occupied the downtown area
where my roots were planted."
The Discipline Of Seeing
Every day at sunrise Parker would head downtown, sometimes just looking.
He was fascinated with many of the facades on the main street and would
study the light as it hit the buildings and think about how he could make
a good photograph there. With the compositional structure in place he
could watch for things to happen from life and was quickly able to grab
his images that way. Often he would make a statement by simply using the
words on a building.
Saturday morning our gang of kids, 12 years of age and
under, would scamper through the downtown streets and
alleyways of Brockton making our way to the five-and-dime,
then to the Center Theatre to see a double feature that
cost 25 cents. There were other theaters downtown but
only the Center Theatre was religious about showing horror
"I approached my photographs
like a fly on the wall and rarely asked anyone if I could photograph them.
I would come up on a person and be focused with the exposure ready so
all I had to do was bring my eye to the camera and shoot."
The pictures were taken with a veteran Leica M3. Parker was living in
abject poverty that hindered his productivity. He didn't always
have the film, chemicals, or paper to be extravagant and would shoot for
months without being able to make prints. He developed his film in the
kitchen sink and then put the negatives away. Feeling strongly about the
integrity of photography, Parker says, "I never tried to photograph
commercially because I feared I would destroy myself. Only recently I
have begun to sell my work."
He refers with reverence to Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, and Diane Arbus
as his mentors and speaks modestly about his own five-year scholarship
at the Boston School of the Museum of Fine Arts, the grant in 1980 from
the National Endowment for the Arts, and his recent commitment to be featured
in this year's journal of the Mass Historical Society. After his
one-man show at the Brockton Art Museum in 1980, but with little response
from galleries since photography was yet to become a serious art form,
Parker says he "just ran out of gas." For the past 22 years
he has worked as a stonemason and has given away many of his photographs
to those who responded to them, including several major museums.
Peter's Lunch was my frequent hangout. The owner
knew my family, especially my brother Roy. Frank, the
proprietor, won money on many occasions betting on the
horses my brother rode.
work is now out of wraps and is being taken seriously. "Hopefully,"
he says, "my images, put away these many years, will be like a fine
wine and retain a timelessness."
The Artist's Statement
"I could walk days
aimlessly, then all at once life would unfold. As I walked the back streets
my fondness for architecture became apparent and I photographed a number
of houses. However, when the opportunity presented itself I would incorporate
people, suggestions of life. Many times I could sense the mood of the
architecture in the lonely streets where rows of three-deckers stood.
Even on Main Street there were moments when a whole block of buildings
could be seen standing timeless. I photographed everything my soul could
"The artist who touched me most deeply was John Coltrane. For three
years I carried his music in my heart. There was a direct relationship
between the images I perceived and the sounds he created. His cries for
us to help and understand can be heard in my images. The lonely streets
of Brockton echoed like his music. His screechy, screaming, off-key notes
cut like a razor through the downtown atmosphere, opening up this dead
carcass of a city to infestations of the deprived souls who inhabit this
godforsaken environment, calling it home."