Parks with Minister Malcolm X, & N.Y. Borough President Hulan Jack (Seated); and Dick Gregory (at microphone)
A Parks Masterpiece
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Assistant Managing Editor
“He compiled Black history as a photographer/photo-journalist, film director, author, poet and musician.”
Gordon Parks was considered a freedom fighter and he said that freedom was the theme of all his work: in film, photography, writings and music. He was an activist and his weapon of choice was the media. As the first African American to work as a photographer at Life magazine Parks used his media savvy in 1969 to also become the first African American to write, direct, and score a Hollywood film, “The Learning Tree.”
“A great photograph is as timeless as a great painting because it captures and records the world as we know it,” wrote Parks and he went on to prove it through the body of work that he left as the testament of his multi-faceted artistry. He did not allow anyone to limit his boundaries; he imagined and then went on to bring what he imagined into being.
Parks was born on a small farm in Fort Scott, Kansas, to Sarah Ross and Jackson Parks in 1912. The youngest of fifteen children, his parents died when he was young and he migrated to St. Paul, Minnesota, as a teenager to live with his sister. His mid-western upbringing prepared him for the rough-and-tumble experiences he encountered after high school working as a waiter, a lumberjack, a piano player, band leader and semi-professional basketball player. Though a high school dropout, none of those appealed to Parks as his life’s career path. However, he became enthralled by the photographs he saw in a magazine which led him to “12 Million Black Voices” by Richard Wright and other photos essays about poverty and racism. It helped him to choose his life’s calling; it was the ideal vehicle to reflect reality of society via the artistic voice he had been seeking. By 1937, he had chosen photography as the mainstay of his professional life and started by buying a used camera from a pawn shop. Through much trial and error, he became a prodigy of self-taught talents, and within a few months, he had his pictures exhibited in the store windows of the Eastman Kodak store in Minneapolis. His work caught the eye of Marva Louis (the wife of the heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis) and she encouraged him to move to Chicago, where his opportunities would be much greater.
Moving to Chicago, Parks fell under the influence of the Southside Community Center, a Mecca of Black artists in every field. There he was provided a darkroom from where he launched a one man exhibit that allowed him to win the first Julius Rosenwald Fellowship awarded for photography. This was a major turning point in his journey as a master of the camera which developed as his professional style emanated out of the Depression-era project of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) that he eventually joined in 1942 at the age of 30.
For the next six decades, Parks chronicled the Black experience in American life specializing in portraits of African American women. His signature portrait became known an “American Gothic”; it showed a Black cleaning woman named Ella Watson standing stiffly in front of an American flag, a mop in one hand and a broom in the other. The picture captured the racial mood of the nation’s capital at the time and also portrayed Park’s anger when he asked the woman to pose, after having been denied service at a clothing store, a theater and a restaurant.
During his time at the FSA, Parks sharpened his skills as a photo-journalist at its photography section producing an individualistic style focusing on small towns and industrial centers throughout America, in addition to portraits of African American women. After FSA was disbanded, he joined the overseas division of the Office of War Information as a correspondent during World War II photographing the 332d Fighter Group, an all-black unit based near Detroit. Unable to accompany the pilots overseas, he relocated to Harlem to search for freelance assignments. He then rejoined a seven member photographic team from his FSA days and made documentaries for a photography project for Standard Oil of New Jersey. His most striking work of that period included “Dinner Time at Mr. Hercules Brown’s Home, Somerville, Maine” (1944); “Grease Plant Worker, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” (1946); “Car Loaded with Furniture on Highway” (1945); and Ferry Commuters, Staten Island, N.Y.” (1946).The fashion industry was now coming into its own as a major part of the commercial world, and Parks began searching for photography assignments in that area. He was hired by “Vogue” magazine to shoot a collection of evening gowns, despite prevailing racist attitudes. For the next few years, fashion assignments for “Vogue” magazine continued and Parks published his first two books: “Flash Photography” (1947) and “Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture” (1948).
A photo essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine in 1948. For the next 20 years, he did some of his most famous work traveling the globe and covering issues such as the fashion industry, poverty in Brazil, the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Stokely Carmichael (Sekou Toure), crime and gang violence, overt segregation in the South and celebrity portraits. His work in Brazil created some controversy when he highlighted the plight of an underprivileged boy named Flavio in a documentary which he wrote and directed. Though Flavio was dying from bronchial pneumonia and malnutrition, it brought donations that saved his life and paid for a new home for his family but the Brazilians resented it – the implications and ramifications. Thereafter, a Brazilian retaliated by doing a series of photo essays on rat-infested apartments in Harlem.
In addition to being a master photographer, Parks had the ‘Black’ advantage to be able to cover the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers and other Black nationalists that would have presented problems for White photographers. As the only Black photographer at “Life” magazine, Parks was sometimes characterized as “Uncle Tom” by Black militants especially after he refused to endorse a protest against the magazine by some Black photographers. But his years at the magazine contributed greatly to its circulation and cemented his reputation as a photo-journalist. He had an eye for elegance be it in Black urban life or Paris fashions amidst celebrities, statesmen and politicians. During the 1950s, he added to his resume as a consultant for the National Educational Television doing a series of documentaries on ghetto life.
Parks continued to develop and create new ways to convey lasting African American impressions through his work in photography including books and film/documentaries. In 1963 he published an autobiographical novel, “The Learning Tree,” followed by “A Choice of Weapons,” a finely wrought autobiography in 1966.
In 1968 Parks not only directed a major motion picture with his film adaptation of “The Learning Tree,” he also produced, wrote the screenplay and musical score. Next, he tackled “Shaft” (1971), which centered on a Black detective and introduced Richard Roundtree, a former model, to movie audiences. It also
gained for Isaac Hayes, the first African American to win an Academy Award for a movie theme. “Shaft” was a major success, and according to critics, it helped spawn the genre of African American action films that became known as “blaxploitation” movies. Parks then directed the sequel, “Shaft’s Big Score,” in 1972. Later on, he directed the comedy, “The Super Cops” (1974) and the drama, “Leadbelly” (1976) – a biopic of musician, Huddie Leadbelly, as well as several movies for television.
At the end of the 60s, Parks co-founded “Essence” magazine and was its editorial director for the first two years. He combined poetry and photography, and wrote “A Poet and His Camera” (1968), “Whispers of Intimate Things” (1971), “In Love” (1971) and “Moments Without Proper Names” (1975). Other works included “Born Black” (1971) a collection of essays, “To Smile in Autumn” (1979) and a fiction novel, “Shannon,” (1981) about Irish immigrants and their social struggles in New York during the early 20th century.
Parks’ personal life was as colorful as his profession. He was married and divorced three times: to Sally Avis (1933 – 1961); to Elizabeth Campbell (1962 – 1973); and Genevieve Young (1973 – 1979). It was also said that he was romantically involved with Gloria Vanderbilt, the fashion designer and railroad heiress. He had four children: David, Leslie, Toni and Gordon, Jr. who died in a plane crash in 1979, after following his dad for a short time as a movie director (“Superfly”). Parks was also named the godfather of Qubilah Shabazz, one of Malcolm X’s daughters.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Parks began to finalize his productive years as an artist in different media by having the first major retrospective exhibition of his photographs in the New York Public Library and the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University. He continued writing, making movies and composing music. As a self-taught pianist, early in his career he had composed “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” and “Tree Symphony.” And in an effort to support the Civil Rights Movement, he composed “Martin,” a ballet in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was screened on national television on King’s birthday in 1990. That same year, he wrote “Voices in the Mirror, in 1994, he did “Arias of Silence,” in 1996, “Glimpses Toward Infinity” and “Half Past Autumn” in 1997, which was a retrospective of his life and work. It was made into an HBO special.
Throughout his career, Parks received honors, accolades and awards too numerous to list. Some of them included the NAACP Spingarn Award (1972), an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Thiel College in Pennsylvania (1984) and a National Medal of Arts award from President Ronald Reagan in 1988. The United States Library of Congress recognized “The Learning Tree” and “Shaft” as culturally significant in 1989 and 2000 respectively, and it also curated the Gordon Parks Collection in 1995. He received an NAACP Image Award in 2003 and an honorary Doctor of Humanities from the Art Institute of Boston, Massachusetts, in 2004. The man who never finished high school was a recipient of 40 honorary doctorates from colleges and universities in the United States and England.
In 2001, the History Makers interviewed Parks and listed him as a history maker in the field of art, and an alternative learning center in St. Paul, Minnesota, renamed its school ‘Gordon Parks High School’ in honor of Parks in 2008 after receiving a new building.
His life can be described as an iconoclastic character who defined the boundaries of his many talents and did not allow himself to be pigeon-holed by expectations of others as to who or what he should be. Parks resisted stereotypes and became convinced that he could accomplish whatever he set his mind to, despite his lack of professional and/or academic training. He overcame obstacles, barriers and resistance to achieve his goals in life while using his works as an artist as an exit visa to widen the distance from which he came to where he had arrived.
He channeled his literary energy in works that reflected himself beginning from his adolescence on the small farm through his early career. He pioneered the path for a future generation of film makers including Spike Lee, John Singleton, Ivan Dixon and Bill Duke. Hence, he was called the Jackie Robinson of Film.
Parks died of cancer in 2006, where he had lived for decades, at his beloved New York address, the fashionable United Nations Plaza. He was 93 years old.