Gordon Parks has died at age 93. He was a cultural icon. A prolific and versitile artist, he was an accomplished writer, composer, pianist, film producer and director. But, I knew him best from his Life Magazine photography of the struggles and triumphs of Black life and poverty.
Gordon Parks was the youngest of fifteen children, born to Sarah and Andrew Parks in racially tense Fort Scott, Kansas. Gordon felt secure in his home where his parents taught the children to value honor, honesty and education. After his mother’s death he was sent to live with his sister and her husband in St. Paul MN. At age 15, after an argument with his sister’s husband, Gordon found himself out own his own. His first jobs were mopping the floors and playing the piano in a brothel, busboy at a hotel and a railroad porter. It was during his travels with the railroad that he developed an interest in photography. He bought his first camera for $12.50 and took his first photos on the Seattle, WA waterfront, even falling off the pier as he photographed seagulls in flight.
Back in St. Paul, he began to make a name for himself as a fashion photographer. Parks was encouraged by Marva Louis, wife of Joe Louis, to move to Chicago where he earned a living in fashion photography while also documenting life in Chicago slums. In 1942, these photos led him to a job in Washington D.C. as a documentary photographer. His well known photo that he called “American Gothic, Washington D.C.” is a photo of Ella Watson, a Black woman who had mopped floors all her life for the government, posed with a mop and broom in front of an American flag.
In 1943, he tried for a position with Harper’s Bazaar but the Hearst Organization would not hire a Black man. But, Vogue and Glamour recognized his talent and by the end of 1944 his photos appeared in both magazines. In 1948 Parks became the first Black photographer for Life Magazine. He covered over 300 assignments including the murder of gang members, the Ingrid Bergman-Roberto Rosellini love affair, Malcolm X, Black Panthers, and Martin L King’s death.
Parks began his film career in 1962 by writing and directing a documentary about Flavio Da Silva, a young asthmatic boy dying in the hills of Brazil. Parks photo essay on Flavio resulted in donations of thousands of dollars, enabling Parks to bring the boy to the United States for treatment. Parks remained friends with Flavio who is healthy and living outside Rio de Janeiro.
He won a 1968 Emmy for his documentary “Diary of a Harlem Family”. He then became the first Black to produce and direct a film for a major studio, Warner Bros. The film “The Learning Tree” was based on Parks 1963 novel. He hit commercial success with "Shaft" in 1971 and "Shaft's Big Score" in 1972.
Gordon Parks published three autobiographical novels, several volumns of poetry with accompanying photos, and wrote the music and libretto for the ballet "Martin" based on the life of Martin L. King.
In 1995 Parks donated his films, photos and writings to the Library of Congress and "The Learning Tree" was registered as a classic. In 2002 he was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum.
Gordon Parks was truly a renaissance man, but was best known as a photojournalist.
"I picked up a camera because itwas my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty. I could have just as easily picked up a knife or gun, like many of my childhood friends did...most of whom were murdered or put in prison...but I chose not to go that way.I felt that I could somehow subdue these evils by doing something beautiful that people recognize me by, and thus make a whole different life for myself, which has proved to be so."
Gordon Parks body of work is an amazing contribution to American culture and record of American history.