Multi-faceted photojournalist, Gordon Parks (born 1912), documented many of the greatest images of the 20th century. He expanded his artistic pursuits from visual images to literature with his first novel, The Learning Tree, which he then adapted into an award-winning motion picture. Over the years, his works have included musical composition, orchestration, and poetry. The limit of Parks' talent remains to be discovered as he evolves with characteristic grace into the era of digital photography.
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas on November 30, 1912. He was the youngest of 15 siblings, the children of Andrew and Sarah (Ross) Jackson Parks. The rumor survives, more than eight decades later, that Parks was born dead. In what must have seemed a miracle, the attending physician was able to revive the infant. The physician, Dr. Gordon, acquired a namesake in the process.
The Parks family members were victims of extreme poverty. Andrew Parks was a dirt farmer whose wife passed away when Gordon was only 15. Following the death of Sarah Parks, members of the Parks family dispersed, and Gordon went to St. Paul, Minnesota to stay with an older sister. In St. Paul he attended Central High and Mechanical Arts High School, but the hardships of adult life set in before he received a diploma. Parks had failed to establish a congenial relationship with his brother-in-law. Thus, life became difficult. The relationship grew increasingly strained until Parks abruptly left his sister's household. Still in high school and jobless, he carried few belongings with him into the frigid Minnesota winter. He survived by taking odd jobs and tried to finish his education, but soon dropped out and drifted in search of work.
Young Artist on His Own
Even as a very young child, Parks sensed his own gift of music. As a youngster, he played an old Kimball piano whenever he could find the time. He was, in fact, able to pick and play most instruments that crossed his path. That innate sense of music enabled Parks to secure work as a piano player, albeit in the setting of a brothel. In time Parks joined the Larry Funk Orchestra and went on tour until the band dissolved in New York, at which point he found himself in Harlem and jobless once again. Parks joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 and used that employment to return to Minnesota, where he married Sally Alvis. In 1935 Parks went to work for the railroad.
Parks was a porter on the Northern Pacific Railroad in the late 1930s when he purchased a 35mm camera, a Voightlander Brilliant, from a pawn shop in Seattle. He carried the $10 camera to Puget Sound and shot some pictures of seagulls. Those first pictures were impressive, and they were on display at the developer's shop within weeks. Soon Parks secured a professional "shoot" for a woman's apparel store in St. Paul. Eventually his work was seen by Marva Louis, wife of prize-fighter Joe Louis. In 1941, she convinced Parks to move to Chicago, where she used her influence to procure photography assignments for him. In his spare time, Parks photographed the urban ghettos, and again his work was impressive. Within the year, Parks received a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation to study photography. He used the opportunity to apprentice with Roy Stryker at the Farm Services Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., beginning in January 1942. Parks documented images of the Great Depression. His first FSA picture, taken in 1942, was called "Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman." The classic photograph depicted a government employee, Ella Watson, who worked at one of the federal buildings in Washington, standing with a mop and broom against a backdrop of the American Flag. Parks found Watson to be an expressive subject, and he shot 85 pictures of her. The original photo of Watson, which is alternately titled "American Gothic, Washington, D.C." was one of over 200 works that Parks donated to Washington's Corcoran Art Gallery in 1998.
By 1943, Parks was a valued employee of Roy Stryker. When Stryker transferred to the Office of War Information, Parks went along. His assignment with the War Office was to document through photography the activities of the 332nd Fighter Group, the Tuskegee Airmen. He remained on that assignment until 1945 when he changed employers, again to work with Stryker. The pair went to work at Standard Oil in New Jersey where Parks photographed small towns and other urban views.
Parks was still employed by the federal government in 1944 when he accepted a freelance assignment from Vogue magazine to shoot some fashion sets. The Vogue assignments continued for several years. In 1947, Parks found the time to write a how-to book called Flash Photography. He followed with a second book called Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture in 1948. Also in 1948, Parks embarked on what evolved into a 20-year career as a member of the photography staff of Life magazine. That publication availed itself of his expressive artistry as well as his cultural background. As an African American, Parks received assignments few others would accept, including a moving and eloquent photographic documentary about the urban gangs in Harlem. Among the most expressive of the photographs in that work was a 1948 shot called "Red Jackson and Herbie Levy Study Wounds on Face of Slain Gang Member Maurice Gaines."
Brings Color to Life
During his career with Life, Parks photographed some of the most beautiful scenery and people in the world. In 1950, he spent two years in Paris, as the European correspondent for Life. He worked in the exclusive areas that bordered the Mediterranean Sea-France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Parks was privileged to photograph world aristocracy and celebrities, including Duke Ellington, Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rosselini, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Louis Armstrong. As Life opened new doors, Parks expanded his technical horizons. The growing popularity of film and television during the 1950s beckoned Parks to enlarge his creative arena. In 1958, he began his initial work with color photography, and the following year he added poetry to his repertoire. Life published a series of photographs by Parks, enhanced with verses of his own poems.
Parks went on to produce memorable photojournalism during the 1960s. In a 1961 essay on poverty in Brazil, his article centered on the family of Flavio Da Silva. Flavio, a twelve-year-old Brazilian boy at the time of the feature, was gravely ill, which put the welfare of his entire family into jeopardy. The Flavio Da Silva Story was hailed as a benchmark of journalism, partly because of the unanticipated outpouring of assistance provided to the Da Silva family in response to Parks' story.
Parks' work continued to profoundly influence the lives of his photographic subjects as well as his own family. In 1965, Parks documented the rift that occurred between civil rights leader Malcolm X and his church, the Nation of Islam. His work incensed the Nation of Islam, and Life was forced to provide security protection for Parks. His family left the country for a time, until the animosity subsided. In an earlier piece, in 1956, Parks described the plight of "Willy Causey and Family, Shady Grove, Alabama." The Causeys, too, were forced to flee their home under threats of retribution for Parks' honest yet disturbing journalism. The Causey essay, shot near Mobile, Alabama, was a documentary on the plight of segregated African Americans. In 1967, Parks documented a poverty-stricken family, the Fontenelles, from the tenements of Harlem. With intervention by Parks, the Fontenelles were assisted with $35,000 from Life. The money enabled the family to move to Long Island, although a series of tragedies continued to plague them.
Between 1968 and 1976, Parks worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter and film director. Beginning in 1968 and into 1969, he wrote the screenplay, produced the film, directed the filming, and composed the score for Learning Tree. The movie, which is autobiographical in nature, was filmed in Parks' hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas. Following the critical success of his first film, Parks made two films about the character Shaft, in the 1970s. In 1976 he filmed a movie, Leadbelly, about the life of the folk singer and guitarist, Huddie Ledbetter.
Lengthy List of Credits
The resume of Gordon Parks reads impressively, with 14 books, eight films, 12 musical compositions, a ballet, exhibitions, photographs, and paintings to his credit. He donated a vast archive of his creative work to the U.S. Library of Congress in 1995, because he "wanted it all stored under one roof and a roof that I [Parks] could respect," he was quoted in Jet.James Billington, the librarian of Congress, graciously accepted Parks' offer.
September 17, 1997 marked the first ceremony of the Gordon Parks Independent Film Awards. Chris Williams won the directing award for Asbury Park and Sheldon Sampson won the screenwriting award for Two Guns. In 1988, Parks made a documentary for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) entitled "Gordon Parks: Moments without Proper Names." In August of that same year, he received the National Medal of the Arts from President Ronald Reagan. At that ceremony the Washington Press Corps honored Parks with a standing ovation.
In 1989, at the age of 76, Parks penned a ballet entitled, "Martin," about Martin Luther King, Jr. The following year, Parks was inducted into the Journalism Hall of Fame by the National Association of Black Journalists. He also embarked on the exploration of a new artistic medium-digital ink-jet printing. Parks used the art form to create abstractions, many of which are based on photographs of landscapes; but other objects, even paintings, are used as well. With this new art form, Parks placed great emphasis on light and dark.
In addition to The Learning Tree, Parks penned three autobiographies: A Choice of Weapons, (1966); To Smile in Autumn, (1979); and Voices in the Mirror, (1990). His numerous poetry anthologies include Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera, Arias of Silence, and Glimpses Toward Infinity.
Among the many exhibitions of Parks' works were "Moments Without Proper Names," in 1996 at the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia; and the retrospective "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks," which opened in September 1997 at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. "Half Past Autumn" went on to St. Paul, New York City, Detroit, Memphis, West Palm Beach, Atlanta, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Chicago.
Parks has been the recipient of honorary degrees from a score of universities and art institutions. He was further honored by the Stockton School of East Orange, New Jersey-a communications media magnet, which was renamed the Gordon Parks Academy.
The prairie country where Parks spent his childhood was replete with segregated public schools, racially motivated killings, and even segregated cemeteries. Parks himself, on one occasion, was left to drown in a river because of his race, but survived the attack. He learned from his parents to avoid the "decay" of racism. He was quoted in Life, "The anger and bitterness are there, but you use those emotions to help you do what you want to do." In adulthood, Parks was the first African American photographer at Life and earlier the first African American at FSA. He witnessed, during his early career in Washington, the segregation of lunch counters, theaters, and other public buildings. Parks' production of The Learning Treewas the first "studio-financed" Hollywood motion picture directed by an African American.
Parks presented his reflections on racism through selected works. Born Black, a collection of his photographic essays for Life on the topic of black activism, was published in 1971. Parks directed the movie, Odyssey of Solomon Northrup in 1988. It tells the story, based in fact, about a free black man from the North who was taken into slavery by Southerners in the 1800s.
In contrast to his youth, Parks makes his home in a serene studio in Manhattan, overlooking the East River. He was quoted in Life concerning his latest creative outlet of painting, "I paint how I feel when I wake up. I may feel gentle, or very abrupt, like a dragon out of the sky."
Through nearly 50 years of married life, Parks maintained friendships with a trio of ex-wives. He and Sally Alvis Parks divorced in 1961 after 28 years of marriage. The following year, he married Elizabeth Campbell Rollins. They divorced in 1973. Later that year, on August 26, Parks married Genevieve Young. That final marriage lasted six years; the couple divorced in 1979.
Parks has three children from his first marriage: David, Leslie, and Toni Parks Parsons. An older son, Gordon Jr., was killed in a plane crash in 1979. Parks has two grandsons: Alain and Gordon III, and was honored to be named the godfather of Malcolm X's daughter, Qubilah Shabazz.
Further Reading on Gordon Parks
American Visions, August/September 1997, p. 11.
Jet, April 30, 1990, p. 12; July 31, 1995, p. 21; June 17, 1996, p. 23; December 16, 1996, p. 34; October 6, 1997, p. 35; January 19, 1998, p. 21; October 19, 1998, p. 33; December 7, 1998, p. 22.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 2, 1994.
Life, October, 1994, p. 26; September 1997, p. 94.
New York Amsterdam News, September 11, 1997, p. 29; September 25, 1997, p. 30.
Modern Maturity, June/July 1989, p. 56.
PSA Journal, November 1992, p. 26(8).
Smithsonian, April 1989, p. 66.
USA Today, September 1998, p. 46.
World & I, September 1993, p. 184(10).