Gordon Parks, a great talent.
After many snows I was home again.
Time had whittled down to mere hills the great mountains
of my childhood.
Raging rivers I once swam trickled now like gentle streams
and the wide road curving on to China or Kansas City
or perhaps Calcutta had withered to a crooked path of dust
ending abruptly at the county burial ground. Only the giant that was my father remained the same.
A hundred strong men strained beneath his coffin when they bore him to his grave.
Photographer, movie director, writer, composer
Gordon Parks created himself as a Renaissance Man. Born into poverty, Parks concentrated his creative talents on being witness to the world around him. Through his photography, films, autobiographical works and poetry, and musical compositions, Parks offered the world his vision. He cut through social and racial barriers and stereotypes to reveal the essence of humanity, and in doing so helped to change the world. Proof of his impact can be found in his hundreds of awards, including the Jackie Robinson Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award and his induction into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 2002, as well as his more than 50 honorary doctorates. Yet his legacy lives on in his works and in the institutions created to celebrate him and to teach new generations. His approach to his careers, as he once explained to Black Enterprise, continues to inspire: “At first I wasn’t sure that I had the talent, but I did know I had a fear of failure, and that fear compelled me to fight off anything that might abet it. I suffered evils, but without allowing them to rob me of the freedom to expand.”
Driven by this determination to “drive failure from my dreams and to push on,” Parks became the first black photographer to work at magazines like Life and Vogue, and the first black to work for the Office of War Information and the Farm Security Administration. Parks achieved these milestones in the 1940s. Later, in the 1960s, he helped break racial barriers in Hollywood as the first black director for a major studio. He co-produced, directed, wrote the screenplay, and composed the musical score for the film based on his 1963 novel, The Learning Tree. The film was later placed on the National Film Register by the Library of Congress.
Learned to be Independent at Young Age
The youngest of fifteen children, Gordon Parks was born into the devout Methodist family of Sarah Ross Parks and Andrew Jackson Parks in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas. It was a town “electrified with racial tension,” Parks remembered. The family was dirt-poor, but the children were taught to value honor, education, and equality, as well as the importance of telling the truth. The security that Parks derived from the quiet strength of his father and his mother’s love was shattered when she died during his fifteenth year. As he recalled in Voices in the Mirror, he spent the night alone with her coffin, an experience he found both “terror-filled and strangely reassuring.”
After his mother’s death, Parks was sent to live with a sister and her husband in St. Paul, Minnesota. His high school education was cut short when, after an argument, his sister’s husband threw him out of the house just before Christmas one year. Suddenly and unexpectedly on his own, Parks was forced to take a variety of temporary jobs that included playing piano in a brothel and mopping floors. As a busboy at the Hotel Lowry in St. Paul, he played his own songs on the piano there and joined a band that was on tour after the leader heard him play.
Unfortunately, the band broke up when they returned to New York. Stuck in Harlem, living in a rat-infested tenement and unable to find work, Parks joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933. He married Sally Alvis in 1933 and returned to St. Paul in 1934, taking a job there as a dining-car waiter and porter on the North Coast Limited. The couple had three children, Gordon, Jr., Toni, and David.
Developed as Photographer
Parks became interested in photography while working on the railroad. He took his first pictures in Seattle, Washington, in 1937, at the end of his “run” from St. Paul. As Parks recalled for The Black Photographers Annual, “I bought my first camera in a pawn shop there. It was a Voigtlander Brilliant and cost $12.50. With such a brand name, I could not resist.” He took his first pictures on Seattle’s waterfront, even falling off the pier as he photographed sea gulls in flight. Upon his return to the Midwest, he dropped his film off at Eastman Kodak in Minneapolis. “The man at Kodak told me the shots were very good and if I kept it up, they would give me an exhibition. Later, Kodak gave me my first exhibition,” Parks recalled.
Against all odds, Parks made a name for himself in St. Paul as a fashion photographer. When Marva Louis, the wife of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, saw his photographs on display in a fashionable store, she encouraged him to move to Chicago where she could steer more fashion work his way. Using the darkroom of Chicago’s South Side Arts Center, a black community arts center, he supported his family through fashion photography while documenting life in the city’s slums. His documentary photographs won him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1941, paying him $200 a month and offering him his choice of employer. In January 1942, he went to work in Washington, D.C., for Roy Emerson Stryker in the photography section of the Farm Security Administration, where he joined some of the finest documentary photographers in the country.
At a Glance …
Born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, KS; died on March 7, 2006, in New York, NY; son of Andrew Jackson and Sarah (Ross) Parks; married Sally Alvis in Washington, D.C., 1933 (divorced, 1961); married Elizabeth Campbell, 1962 (divorced, 1973); married Genevieve Young (an editor), 1973 (divorced, 1979); children (first marriage) Gordon, Jr. (died, 1979), Toni Parks Parson, David; (second marriage) Leslie.
Career : Freelance fashion photographer in St. Paul, MN, 1937–42; Farm Security Administration, photographer, 1942–43; Office of War Information, photojournalist war correspondent 1943; Standard Oil of New Jersey, photographer, 1944–48; Life magazine, photojournalist and photo-essayist, 1948–68; independent photographer and filmmaker, 1954–; numerous documentary and feature films; Essence, founder, 1970, editorial director 1970–73; author of novels, poetry and photography; creator, composer, and director.
Awards : Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, 1941; Notable Book Award, American Library Association for A Choice of Weapons, 1966; Emmy Award for documentary, Diary of a Harlem Family, 1968; Spingarn Award, 1972; Christopher Award for Flavio, 1978; National Medal of the Arts, 1988; Library of Congress National Film Registry Classics film honor for The Learning Tree, 1989; honorary Doctor of Letters, University of the District of Columbia, 1996; Library of Congress, Living Legend Award, 2000; induction into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, 2002; Jackie Robinson Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, 2002.
Parks took one of his most significant photographs on his first day in the nation’s capital. He called it “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.,” a portrait of Mrs. Ella Watson, a black woman who had mopped floors for the government all her life, posed with a mop and broom in front of an American flag. After a day of facing racial prejudice in restaurants and stores, Parks was angry when he took the photo. As the first black in the FSA, Parks did all he could to break down racial barriers, and he had the full support of his boss, Roy Stryker. While at the FSA, Parks took documentary photographs of everyday life. He spoke of his camera as if it were a weapon, “I had known poverty firsthand, but there I learned how to fight its evil—along with the evil of racism—with a camera.”
After the FSA disbanded in 1943, Parks worked as a correspondent for the Office of War Information, where he taught himself about “writing to the point.” One of his assignments was photographing the training of the first unit of black fighter pilots, the 332nd Fighter Group. Prohibited from accompanying them to Europe and documenting their participation in the war effort, Parks left in disgust and moved back to Harlem. In New York, he attempted to land a position with a major fashion magazine. The Hearst Organization, publisher of Harper’s Bazaar, would not hire a black man. Impressed by Parks’s experience, famed photographer Edward Steichen sent him to Alexander Liberman, director of Vogue magazine. Liberman put Parks in touch with the senior editor of Glamour magazine, and by the end of 1944 Parks’s photographs appeared in both magazines. Parks’s former boss, Roy Stryker, offered him a position with Standard Oil of New Jersey in 1944. Parks would stay there until he joined Life magazine as a photojournalist in 1948, shooting pictures of the company’s executives and doing a notable documentary series for Standard Oil on life in America.
Worked at Life
Parks’s first assignment for Life was one of his most significant, a profile of Harlem gang leader Red Jackson. It was an idea Parks himself suggested, and he stayed with the gangs for three months. His most famous photograph of Red Jackson is one in which the gang leader has a .45 pistol in his hand, waiting for a showdown with a rival gang. Parks would work at Life for two decades, until 1968, completing more than 300 assignments. When asked by The Black Photographers Annual to name his most important stories for Life, Parks listed the Harlem gang story, his first Paris fashion shoot in 1949, the Ingrid Bergman-Roberto Rosellini love affair on Stromboli, a cross-country U.S. crime series, an American poetry series that interpreted in photographs the works of leading U.S. poets, the Black Muslims and Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and Martin Luther King’s death. By the early 1960s, Parks was writing his own essays to accompany his photographs in Life.
Parks provided the readers of Life magazine with a unique view of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. As Phil Kunhardt, Jr., assistant managing editor of Life, recalled for Deedee Moore, “At first he made his name with fashion, but when he covered racial strife for us, there was no question that he was a black photographer with enormous connections and access to the black community and its leaders.” It was Malcolm X’s trust of Parks that allowed him to do a feature on the Black Muslim leader. Malcolm X wrote of Parks in his autobiography, “Success among whites never made Parks lose touch with black reality.”
Real life and photography were often closely intertwined in Parks’s work, especially when subjects that touched his soul. “Those special problems spawned by poverty and crime touched me more, and I dug into them with more enthusiasm,” he said, as quoted in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. “Working at them again revealed the superiority of the camera to explore the dilemmas they posed.” He captured some of his most poignant photos in 1961 when he was on assignment in Brazil to document poverty there. He met a young, asthmatic boy named Flavio Da Silva who was dying in the hills above Rio de Janeiro. Parks’s now-famous photo-essay on Flavio resulted in donations of thousands of dollars, enabling Parks to bring the boy to a clinic in the United States for treatment. Flavio was cured and returned to live outside of Rio; Parks and Flavio remained friends for life.
Displayed Talent in Film Industry
Parks began his cinematic career by writing and directing a documentary about Flavio in 1962. In 1968 he became the first black to produce and direct a film for a major studio, Warner Bros. Seven Arts. The film, The Learning Tree, was based on Parks’s 1963 autobiographical novel and featured lush romanticism. Surprisingly, Parks also directed some highly commercial dramas, including Shaft (1971), Shaft’s Big Score (1972), and The Super Cops (1974). As described by Donald Bogle in Blacks in American Films and Television, “Almost all his films [except The Super Cops] reveal his determination to deal with assertive, sexual black heroes, who struggle to maintain their manhood amid mounting social/political tensions…. In some respects, his films … can generally be read as heady manhood initiation rituals.”
The commercial success of the Shaft films put MGM studios back on its feet financially after some difficult times, but Parks was not assured of a lasting place in Hollywood. Something of a maverick, Parks found himself in a dispute with Paramount Pictures over the distribution and promotion of his 1976 film, Lead-belly, which tells the story of the legendary folk and blues singer. Paramount’s new management denied the film a New York opening, thus lessening its impact, and Parks felt the advertising campaign made the movie appear to be another “blaxploitation” film. Declining to do another Hollywood movie, Parks went on to film several documentaries for television and the Public Broadcasting System, including Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey, The World of Piri Thomas, Diary of a Harlem Family, and Mean Streets.
Writing Proved Another Creative Outlet
The Learning Tree, Parks’s autobiographical novel and subsequent film, was his first published work of fiction. The story is about a black family in a small Kansas town; it focuses on Newt Winger, the youngest son. As described in the Dictionary of Literary Biog-raphy, “On one level, it is the story of a particular Negro family who manages to maintain its dignity and self-respect as citizens and decent human beings in a border Southern town. On another, it is a symbolic tale of the black man’s struggle against social, economic, and natural forces, sometimes winning, sometimes losing…. Because the family is portrayed as a normal American family whose blackness is a natural circumstance and therefore not a source of continual pain and degradation, the book contributes greatly to a positive view of black people.”
Parks followed The Learning Tree with A Choice of Weapons. Published in 1966, it was the first of three autobiographical works he would write. The book detailed in a fairly straightforward manner the time of his life that was fictionalized in The Learning Tree, covering Parks’s life from the time of his mother’s death to 1944. It was a time that Parks has described as “a sentence in hell.”
Parks’s second volume of memoirs was published in 1979. To Smile in Autumn begins in 1944, when his first fashion photographs were appearing in Vogue and Glamour, and ends in 1978, when Parks had done just about everything he had set out to do. His creative output during that period was phenomenal. In addition to his work in film and television, Parks published several volumes of his own poetry with accompanying photographs. In 1972 the NAACP awarded him the prestigious Spingarn Medal following the publication in 1971 of Born Black, a collection of articles on notable African-Americans. By 1975 Parks was married to his third wife, editor Genevieve Young, and had a major retrospective showing 25 years of his photographs in New York. He lived in New York in a large apartment overlooking the East River near the United Nations building.
Regarded as Genius
But Parks was not about to retire. He had begun work on his autobiography, Voices in the Mirror, which explored the difficulties of his early years in Kansas, as well as the lasting impression his parents’ love made on him. It was published in 1990. In 1988 he received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan, and his autobiographical film, Moments without Proper Names, aired on PBS. He completed the musical score and libretto for Martin, a ballet about Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1989 and began filming it for PBS, where it was shown on King’s birthday in 1990. Grace Blake, the producer of Martin, had worked with Parks on some of his Hollywood films. She told the Smithsonian, “Gordon’s vision of this whole project is so important to all of us…. There are not that many good projects being done about black people…. [Martin] is totally conceived by a black man who is an artist—who wrote the libretto, the music, directed the film, worked on the choreography, narrated, did his own fund raising. Absolutely, we know we are working with a genius.”
In 1995 Parks donated his archives of films, photographs, writings, and other memorabilia to the Library of Congress. Parks said the donation was made because, as he told Jet, “I wanted it all stored under one roof and a roof that I could respect.” In 1998 he published Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective. The book accompanied a traveling exhibit of his work organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Parks donated 227 pieces of artwork from the show to the Corcoran Gallery later in 1998.
In 2002 the 90-year-old Parks was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in Oklahoma City and received the Jackie Robinson Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. The power of Parks’ cultural influence might best be seen in his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, which transformed over the years from being a source of racial strife and poverty in Parks’ life to a champion of him as hometown hero, as witnessed by the opening of the Gordon Parks Center for Culture and Diversity at Fort Scott Community College in 2004. Parks donated his most renowned photograph, “American Gothic,” and 30 others to the center, which continued to honor him with annual Gordon Parks Celebrations.
Parks died in his New York City apartment at the age of 93 on March 7, 2006. Hundreds of mourners attended his funeral, and special remembrances were held by his admirers around the country. Honored as a “living legend” by the Library of Congress when alive, Parks remained a legend after death. Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins captured Parks’ essence in his eulogy, quoted by the Associated Press: “He was larger than life.”
Flash Photography, New York, 1947.
Camera Portraits: The Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture, Franklin Watts, 1948.
The Learning Tree (novel), Harper & Row, 1963.
A Choice of Weapons (autobiography), Harper & Row, 1966.
A Poet and His Camera (poetry and photographs), Viking, 1968.
Gordon Parks: Whispers of Intimate Things (poetry and photographs), Viking, 1971.
Born Black (essays and photographs), Lippincott, 1971.
In Love (poetry and photographs), Lippincott, 1971.
Moments Without Proper Names (poetry and photographs), Viking, 1975.
Flavio, Norton, 1978.
To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir, Norton, 1979.
Shannon (novel), Little, Brown, 1981.
Voices in the Mirror (autobiography), Doubleday, 1990.
Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, Bulfinch: Little Brown, 1998.
The Black Photographers Annual, Volume 4, edited by Joe Crawford, Another View, 1980.
Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Films and Television: An Encyclopedia, Garland, 1988.
Gordon Parks, Chelsea House, 1990.
Afterimage, March 2002.
American Visions, December 1989.
Associated Press, March 15, 2006.
Atlanta Daily World, March 30, 2006.
Black Enterprise, January 1992.
Detroit Free Press, January 9, 1991.
Jet, July 31, 1995; September 23, 1996; October 6, 1997; January 19, 1998; October 19, 1998; April 8, 2002.
Library Journal, February 1, 1998.
Modern Maturity, June-July 1989.
New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1990.
Smithsonian, April 1989.
USA Today (Magazine), September 1998.
Worcester Telegram and Gazette (MA), March 9, 2006, p. C2.