By KATIE DAVIES PUBLISHED: 23:04 EST, 1 March 2013 | UPDATED: 09:54 EST, 2 March 2013 A haunting portrait of poverty and hardship in 1960s New York told through the story of one family will be exhibited just streets away from where they were first taken by an iconic photographer. The exhibition at the The Studio Museum in Harlem will re-explore the Life magazine photo-essay by Gordon Parks and publish never before seen photographs documenting the life of the Fontenelle family in their Harlem tenement. The pictures tell a heart-breaking story of destitution as the family of ten struggles to survive in their tiny $70 a month home with no income and the constant threat of violence.
What the photographs can’t reveal is the tragic end that ultimately befell the Fontenelles despite Parks’ hope that their lives could be saved. Parks was told by his managing editor Philip Kunhardt to explore why black New Yorkers were rioting in 1967. Parks’ answer was to move in with the family of 10 to tell their story living in a tenement in Harlem, he convinced Bessie Fontenelle that his work would help both them and the neighborhood. The photographer, who died in 2006 and took more than thirty pictures of the family, spoke about the difficulty of separating his personal desire to help from his work as a documentary photographer. Norman Fontenelle had just been laid off as a railway hand so there was near to no money in the house. They used rags to try and keep out the cold while the children were unable to go to school because of their lack of winter clothes.
The pictures follow Bessie Fontenelle and her 8 chidren from the welfare office to the home, even immediately after she was beaten by her husband who would drink throughout the evenings after a day of fruitlessly searching for work. In one image Parks captures a beaten Fontenelle lying with her son Richard. The night before she had thrown a mixture of boiling water and sugar in her husband’s face. ‘She managed a painful half-smile,’ Parks wrote. ”He gave me a going-over last night….I just can’t take it no more. It’s too much for anybody to bear.’ I asked where Norman, Sr., was. ‘In the hospital’, she said. ‘When he got through kicking me, I got up and poured some sugar and honey into a boiling pan of water and let him have it in his face.’ Why the sugar and honey? ‘To make it stick and burn for a while.” ‘It was difficult,’ Parks, who was living in Connecticutt at the time said of the assignment. ‘The husband was unemployed, the family had no food, it was wintertime but the kids couldn’t attend school because they had no winter clothes. And it was difficult not to immediately, being in my position, take money in, take food in, to ease their situation. Because the minute you do that you’ve lost your story. So you pray and hope that you can get your story over as quickly as possible, and that there will be a response from the public.’ There was indeed a response to Parks’ incredibly moving essay but it would be one that would ultimately forever trouble him and play on his conscience. Life readers contributed enough to buy the Fontenelle family a house in Queens and they were all delighted to escape the squalor and heartache of their previous lives. However, just three months later, Norman dropped a cigarette onto a sofa in the house burning it down.
The fire killed both him and one of the youngest children, Kenneth, 9, – with whom Parks had grown a special bond. ‘The problem in documenting a family like that, is that, you wonder, in the end, whether you should have touched the family, or just left them alone.’ Writing in the May 2 1969 issue of life Parks spoke about his final moments with the delighted Fontenelle family. ‘They were getting a new chance in a news neighborhood, a healthy distance from the ugly Harlem tenement where I had found them six months before,’ he wrote. ‘The whole family, including Bessie Fontenelle and her husband, appeared to be in a state of pleasant shock – unable to fully acknowledge the good fortune that had suddenly come to them. Little Kenneth ran up and thrust a photograph the size of a postage stamp into my hands. ‘It’s me’, he said proudly. Keep it in your pocketbook next to your kids picture ‘I promised him I would.’ ‘Don’t forget me’, he said. The exhibition runs at The Studio Museum in Harlem at 144 W. 125th St, New York until June 30.
Reading: Children in the Fontenelle family, left, read in their Harlem home, right