Adjectives that could be used to describe Gordon Parks include photographer, musician, writer, film director and activist, but they would just be superficial. Parks’ impact changed the U.S. in the arts and beyond.
Here are seven things to know about the late Gordon Parks, considered one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century.
Kansas born and bred, Parks taught himself to become a photographer in 1937 after seeing examples of Farm Security Administration photographs reproduced in a magazine.
A small government agency, the FSA was established by Franklin Roosevelt. Between 1935 and 1943, FSA photographers produced nearly 80,000 photos of life in Depression-era America. This remains the largest documentary photography project of a people ever undertaken, according to government archives.
Parks had more than an eye and natural talent. He used his photography, which ranged from photojournalism to high-end fashion photography, to make a statement, according to the Gordon Parks Foundation.
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“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera,” Parks once said.
Parks worked his way up to fashion photographer at Vogue beginning in 1944. By 1948, Life magazine hired him as a staff photographer and he accepted assignments both in fashion and photojournalism. While at Life, Parks produced many of his most important photo essays — photos that reflected America. He shot photos of Harlem gangs, segregation in the South as well as his own experiences with racism. He photographed civil rights icons Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and members of the Black Panther party, according to the International Center of Photography.
Among his most famous photos is “American Gothic.” Photographed in 1942, it shows a Black cleaning woman posed with a broom in one hand and a mop in the other. She stands in front of the U.S. flag. “This is probably Parks’ most recognizable image and depicts African-American woman Ella Watson, who was a cleaner at the Farm Security Administration (FSA)…The photograph is a direct parody of artist Grant Wood’s iconic 1930s painting of the same title. It was a challenge aimed at the treatment of African Americans by highlighting the inequality in the so-called ‘Land of the Free’ and the image came to symbolize life in pre-civil-rights America,” Google Arts & Culture reported.
Parks’ work is in the permanent collections of major New York museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the International Center of Photography, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. Park also has art in the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, according to the Gordon Parks Foundation.
Besides photography, Parks was a respected author. He published 12 books, including three autobiographies.
His first book, published in 1947, was an instruction manual entitled “Flash Photography.” During the 1970s, Parks used a combination of photographs and poetry for his next series of books. Other books followed including, in 1996, “Glimpses Toward Infinity.”
A man of many talents, Parks included poetry, photography and a new endeavor — painting — in the book, according to The International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum.
Parks’ other books include “Camera Portraits” (1943), “A Choice of Weapons” (1966), “Born Black” (1971), “Moments Without Proper Names” (1975), and “Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective” (1997).
Born the youngest of 15 children in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks had problems as a young boy with “the white people in town and the segregated schools, but he was comforted with the knowledge of his parents’ love and unity of the Black community,” according to the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum.
After the death of his mother, a teenage Parks moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with his sister and her family. He was soon thrown out after an argument with his brother-in-law. It was the dead of winter and Parks took a two-week trolley ride from St. Paul to Minneapolis. With no money and hungry, he hunted and ate pigeons, according to the Hall of Fame. Once there, he found a job as a dishwasher by day and at night he played piano in a brothel. After several years, he landing a gig with a traveling band. Then he discovered photography.
After he felt the desire to try photography, Parks needed a camera. He bought a used one.
“I bought that Voightlander Brilliant at a Seattle pawnshop. It wasn’t much of a camera, but for only $7.50, I had purchased a weapon I hoped to use against a warped past and an uncertain future,” he said.
He landed his first job shooting fashion photos for Madeline Murphy. It wasn’t long before his talent was recognized. Famed photography company Eastman Kodak took notice and sponsored Parks’ first exhibitions. His success led him to Chicago and it was there that his photography took on a social activist bent. Along with fashion, Parks started focusing his camera on the poverty-stricken Black community on Chicago’s south side. His work drew accolades, landing him the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship.
Parks’ career was highlighted with firsts. He was the first African-American to photograph for Life and Vogue magazines, the first photographer to be awarded the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship which led to Parks working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., and the first African-American photographer to work for the FSA.
He was also the first African-American filmmaker to produce, direct, and score a film for a major Hollywood studio — Warner Brothers.
As with photography, Parks was a self-taught musician. During his life, he composed orchestral music, film scores and wrote the ballet, “Martin,” which was about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He composed orchestral music and film scores as well.
A true Renaissance man, Parks also made films. He directed several motion pictures including “The Learning Tree” based on his novel by the same name. The book was based on Parks’ early life in Kansas. “The Learning Tree” was placed on the National Film Registry in 1989.
One of his most famed films is the iconic Black film, “Shaft,” which he directed in 1971.
Parks died in 2006 in New York City from cancer. He was 93.
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And he directed the acclaimed film “Leadbelly,” a 1976 film chronicling the life of folk singer Huddie Ledbetter.
Parks also produced films and film scores including “Shaft,” “The Super Cops,” “Leadbelly,” and Solomon Northrup’s “Odyssey.”