Gordon Parks (1913-2006) PDF
Written by Andy Grundberg   


Gordon Parks, a master of the camera, dies at 93.


© Pedro Meyer



Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks, the photographer, filmmaker, writer and composer who used his prodigious, largely self-taught talents to chronicle the African-American experience and to retell his own personal history, died on March 7, 2006, at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.


Gordon Parks was the first African-American to work as a staff photographer for Life magazine and the first black artist to produce and direct a major Hollywood film, "The Learning Tree," in 1969.


He developed a large following as a photographer for Life for more than 20 years, and by the time he was 50 he ranked among the most influential image makers of the postwar years. In the 1960's he began to write memoirs, novels, poems and screenplays, which led him to directing films. In 1970 he helped found Essence magazine and was its editorial director from 1970 to 1973.


An iconoclast, Mr. Parks fashioned a career that resisted categorization. No matter what medium he chose for his self-expression, he sought to challenge stereotypes while still communicating to a large audience. In finding early acclaim as a photographer despite a lack of professional training, he became convinced that he could accomplish whatever he set his mind to. To an astonishing extent, he proved himself right.


Gordon Parks developed his ability to overcome barriers in childhood, facing poverty, prejudice and the death of his mother when he was a teen-ager. Living by his wits during what would have been his high-school years, he came close to being claimed by urban poverty and crime. But his nascent talent, both musical and visual, was his exit visa.


His success as a photographer was largely due to his persistence and persuasiveness in pursuing his subjects, whether they were film stars and socialites or an impoverished slum child in Brazil.


Mr. Parks's years as a contributor to Life, the largest-circulation picture magazine of its day, lasted from 1948 to 1972, and it cemented his reputation as a humanitarian photojournalist and as an artist with an eye for elegance. He specialized in subjects relating to racism, poverty and black urban life, but he also took exemplary pictures of Paris fashions, celebrities and politicians.


Mr. Parks's films, "Shaft" (1971) and "Shaft's Big Score!" (1972), were prototypes for what became known as blaxploitation films. Among Mr. Park's other accomplishments were a second novel, four books of memoirs, four volumes of poetry, a ballet and several orchestral scores. As a photographer Mr. Parks combined a devotion to documentary realism with a knack for making his own feelings self-evident. The style he favored was derived from the Depression-era photography project of the Farm Security Administration, which he joined in 1942 at the age of 30.


Gordon Parks2



© Gordon Parks

Perhaps his best-known photograph, which he titled American Gothic, was taken during his brief time with the agency; it shows 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. Mr. Parks wanted the picture to speak to the existence of racial bigotry and inequality in the nation's capital. He was in an angry mood when he asked the woman to pose, having earlier been refused service at a clothing store, a movie theater and a restaurant.


Anger at social inequity was at the root of many of Mr. Parks's best photographic stories, including his most famous Life article, which focused on a desperately sick boy living in a miserable Rio de Janeiro slum. Mr. Parks described the plight of the boy, Flavio da Silva, in realistic detail. In one photograph Flavio lies in bed, looking close to death. In another he sits behind his baby brother, stuffing food into the baby's mouth while the baby reaches his wet, dirty hands into the dish for more food.


Mr. Parks's pictures of Flavio's life created a groundswell of public response when they were published in 1961. Life's readers sent some $30,000 in contributions, and the magazine arranged to have the boy flown to Denver for medical treatment for asthma and paid for a new home in Rio for his family.


Mr. Parks credited his first awareness of the power of the photographic image to the pictures taken by his predecessors at the Farm Security Administration, including Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein and Ben Shahn. He first saw their photographs of migrant workers in a magazine he picked up while working as a waiter in a railroad car. "I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs," he told an interviewer in 1999. "I knew at that point I had to have a camera."



Many of Mr. Parks's early photo essays for Life, like his 1948 story of a Harlem youth gang called the Midtowners, were a revelation for many of the magazine's predominantly white readers and a confirmation for Mr. Parks of the camera's power to shape public discussion.
But Mr. Parks made his mark mainly with memorable single images within his essays, like American Gothic, which were iconic in the manner of posters. His portraits of Malcolm X (1963), Muhammad Ali (1970) and the exiled Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver (1970) evoked the styles and strengths of black leadership in the turbulent transition from civil rights to black militancy.


But at Life Mr. Parks also used his camera for less politicized, more conventional ends, photographing the socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, who became his friend; a fashionable Parisian in a veiled hat puffing hard on her cigarette, and Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini at the beginning of their notorious love affair.
On his own time he photographed female nudes in a style akin to that of Baroque painting, experimented with double-exposing color film and recorded pastoral scenes that evoke the pictorial style of early-20-century art photography.


Much as his best pictures aspired to be metaphors, Mr. Parks shaped his own life story as a cautionary tale about overcoming racism, poverty and a lack of formal education. It was a project he pursued in his memoirs and in his novel; all freely mix documentary realism with a fictional sensibility.


Mr. Parks's simultaneous pursuit of the worlds of beauty and of tough urban textures made him a natural for Life magazine. After talking himself into an audience with Wilson Hicks, Life's fabled photo editor, he emerged with two plum assignments: one to create a photo essay on gang wars in Harlem, the other to photograph the latest Paris collections.


Life often assigned Mr. Parks to subjects that would have been difficult or impossible for a white photojournalist to carry out, such as the Black Muslim movement and the Black Panther Party. But Mr. Parks also enjoyed making definitive portraits of Barbra Streisand, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Alberto Giacometti and Alexander Calder. From 1949 to 1951 he was assigned to the magazine's bureau in Paris, where he photographed everything from Marshal Pétain's funeral to scenes of everyday life. While in Paris he socialized with the expatriate author Richard Wright and wrote his first piano concerto, using a musical notation system of his own devising.


Much of Mr. Parks's artistic energy in the 1980's and 1990's was spent summing up his productive years with the camera. In 1987, the first major retrospective exhibition of his photographs was organized by the New York Public Library and the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University.


The more recent retrospective, "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks," was organized in 1997 by the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington. It later traveled to New York and to other cities. Many honors came Mr. Parks's way, including a National Medal of Arts award from President Ronald Reagan in 1988. The man who never finished high school was a recipient of 40 honorary doctorates from colleges and universities in the United States and England.


"I'm in a sense sort of a rare bird," Mr. Parks said in an interview in The New York Times in 1997. "I suppose a lot of it depended on my determination not to let discrimination stop me." He never forgot that one of his teachers told her students not to waste their parents' money on college because they would end up as porters or maids anyway. He dedicated one honorary degree to her because he had been so eager to prove her wrong.


"I had a great sense of curiosity and a great sense of just wanting to achieve," he said. "I just forgot I was black and walked in and asked for a job and tried to be prepared for what I was asking for."


Andy Grundberg
©The New York Times
March 8, 2006








Share This