Camp Fern Rock (archer) by Gordon Parks
8"x8" ($35) | 11"x11" ($75) | 16"x16" ($260)
Camp Nathan Hale (mess call) by Gordon Parks
8"x8" ($35) | 11"x11" ($75) | 16"x16" ($260)
Attention campers! Today we’re taking it back with two vintage photographs from the summer of 1943, masterfully shot by the great Gordon Parks. The summer camp scene looks a little different this year, with widespread cancellations and precautions in place, but where real life is pressing pause on planned sleepaways, these two new print editions are serving up positive vibes — plus next-level nostalgia for us former camp kids. (Friendship bracelets and bunk beds, anyone?) Camp Fern Rock (archer) and Camp Nathan Hale (mess hall) each focus on an exemplary camper, giving us portraits as peeks inside two of the 1940s’ rare interracial summer camps in New York state. They’re also reminders that the outdoors belongs to everyone, and that equality in the American wilderness is (quite literally) a beautiful thing.
In Camp Fern Rock (archer), camper Loretta Gyles aims her arrow out of shot. The composure and concentration on her face is captivating, a subtle squint in her eyes, her mouth slightly ajar as she steadies her bow. There’s so much strength in that fist in the fore, so much grace in her angled elbow. Parks’ shallow depth of field blurs the background, emphasizing Gyles against a rapt audience of trees (subverting the racially-charged, violent symbolism of trees in the process). She’s just a girl, but the low angle of the shot gives her a goddess-like presence — Diana the Huntress of upstate NY. That Parks has positioned her as a dominant, independent figure here is a radical act in and of itself, particularly when you consider the context: a camp that worked against the exclusion of People of Color from outdoor spaces.
Parks photographed Camp Nathan Hale (mess hall) at another of the small handful of nonsegregated 40s-era summer camps. Caught mid-bugle call against the background of an American flag, this boy has the ever-important job of summoning campers for mealtime. In the company of Old Glory, this bugle ritual brings to mind American military might, and another American group associated with bugle salutes and the outdoors — the Boy Scouts. In both cases, the bugle would have been mainly used to demarcate the daily routines of camp or announce events. And in both cases, People of Color have been historically excluded, mistreated or undervalued. But here at Camp Nathan Hale, and in this image in particular, the symbolism of the bugle salute opposite stars and stripes prefaces children of differing ethnicities gathering to dine together. In doing so, it adds an imperative to the “traditional” elements of American patriotism at the time: interracial recreation.
Urbanization, immigration, and industrialization transformed the demographics of the US in the early 20th century. By 1920, the diverse urban population outnumbered the rural population for the first time. Summer camps sprang into being as a reaction to white urban anxieties — the diversity of the densely populated urban areas posed a challenge to white supremacy, and wilderness offered white people reprieve as well as a place for white boys to “cultivate masculinity” as per the patriarchy.
While the fight for school integration has been well-documented, there was (and is) a parallel battle to bring racial equity to recreational activities. The exclusion of People of Color from the outdoors — whether it be their absence in imagery or their physical exclusion — is just one example of the extensive, epidemic reach of white supremacy. When Parks photographed seemingly mundane scenes of children of all sorts of races carrying on with assorted camper activities, he overturned the implicitly racist imagery often associated with outdoor recreation and the American wilderness. In his photos, children share meals, swim together, and spend time in nature together, activities that mirror the settings of some of the most antagonistic racial unrest of the time. Parks’ images paint an almost utopian picture of an integrated world that did not exist, one where nature is a setting for diversity rather than a segregated space reserved for whites.
One way white supremacy reveals itself is inferred ownership — in the absence of images of people evidencing otherwise, one assumes white possession. By training his lens on individual kids attending Camp Nathan Hale and Camp Fern Rock, Parks filled the void with people representing various races. And of course he made some aesthetically genius, magnificent art in the process.
With art for everyone,