The J. Paul Getty Museum Presents

Gordon Parks’ Flavio Story

July 9 – November 10, 2019


Gordon Parks was the most accomplished black American photographer, whose major works were produced from 1940-1970.  His camera focused on civil rights struggles, poverty, and African-Americans. An accomplished, filmmaker, composer, writer, and poet, Parks is best remembered for his prolific career as a photographer.  In 1971, he directed the classic, Shaft. But it is his photographic Flavio Project, which shook the world and had the most amazing repercussions. 

Parks was the first black staff photographer on Life Magazine.  In 1961, Life sent him to Brazil to document the poverty in Rio De Janero.   Rio’s favelas are slums where the neglected residents live in dire poverty. It is here he found, Flavio and shot a beatific photographic essay of the boy and his family in situ.  Park’s exquisitely naturally-lit favela photographs documented Flavio’s daily activities that were often interrupted by debilitating asthma attacks.

When Life published the photo essay, major donations of cash and sympathy came flooding in to the magazine from all over the world. Parks established a fund for Flavio. Then the photographer moved Flavio’s entire family to a new house in a middle-class suburb. He flew the sick boy to Children’s Asthma Research Hospital in Denver, all treatment donated.  In America, Flavio took treatment, learned English and was cured in two years, all photographed by Parks. Parks’camera had saved the boy’s life but had also plucked Flavio and his family from the culture that was their destiny. The camera’s power for good was incidentally used as a tool of cultural dislocation. In one photograph, Flavio and his new bride, are shot the through the rear window of their wedding car. With one eye, Flavio looks away from his bridal kiss, and peers deeply into the camera, a Brechtian tell from a man who’s life has been changed forever. 

The government of Brazil was so angry at the international condemnation of the poverty in the favelas, that Brazil’s magazine O Cruzerio was inspired to send their photographer to report on the poverty in New York City.  They found a poor Puerto Rican family, all living in one room on the Lower East Side and published that spread in Brazil, as a kind of retaliation to Life’s Flavio story. Those photographs are also presented in one of the galleries that make up the emotional and conceptual parts of the exhibition, that comprise the Flavio Story.  Now elderly, Flavio flew up from Brazil for the opening of his show. We met him during the press tour. He was a kind, thin man, whose body still bore the marks of his childhood’s illness. One wonders what his soul has endured.

Flávio da Silva, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961 Photo by Gordon Parks, 1961

Untitled (Gordon Parks and Flávio da Silva at Airport, American, 1912–2006 Flavio, 1978 Soon to Fly to The United States), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil July 5, 1961 Photo By Paulo Muniz

Gordon Parks’ Book, Flavio, 1978

Photo by Gordon Parks Catacumba Favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Negative 1961

Photo by Gordon Parks Family’s Day Begins, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Negative 196

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Phil Tarley is a fellow of the American Film Institute and a member of the Photographic Arts Council. Tarley writes about contemporary art and pop culture and curates photography for the AC Gallery, in Los Angeles. His book, Going Down on Cuba: Notes from an Underground Traveler, is slated for publication by Fabrik Press in 2018.

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