Parks at the Civil Rights March on Washington, 1963
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks
November 30, 1912
Fort Scott, Kansas, United States
|Died||March 7, 2006 (aged 93)|
Manhattan, New York City, United States
|Life photographic essays|
The Learning Tree
Solomon Northup's Odyssey
A Choice of Weapons (memoir)
|Children||Leslie Campbell Parks|
|Awards||NAACP Image Award (2003)|
PGA Oscar Micheaux Award (1993)National Medal of Arts (1988)
Spingarn Medal (1972)
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks (November 30, 1912 - March 7, 2006) was an American photographer, musician, writer and film director, who became prominent in U.S. documentary photojournalism in the 1940s through 1970s--particularly in issues of civil rights, poverty and African-Americans--and in glamour photography.
As the first famous pioneer among black filmmakers, he was the first African American to produce and direct major motion pictures--developing films relating the experience of slaves and struggling black Americans, and creating the "blaxploitation" genre. He is best remembered for his iconic photos of poor Americans during the 1940s (taken for a federal government project), for his photographic essays for Life magazine, and as the director of the 1971 film Shaft. Parks also was an author, poet and composer.
Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, the son of Sarah (née Ross) and Jackson Parks, on Nov. 30, 1912. He was the youngest of fifteen children. His father was a farmer who grew corn, beets, turnips, potatoes, collard greens, and tomatoes. They also had a few ducks, chickens, and hogs.
He attended a segregated elementary school. The town was too small to afford a separate high school that would facilitate segregation of the secondary school, but black people were not allowed to play sports or attend school social activities, and they were discouraged from developing any aspirations for higher education. Parks related in a documentary on his life that his teacher told him that his desire to go to college would be a waste of money.
When Parks was eleven years old, three white boys threw him into the Marmaton River, knowing he couldn't swim. He had the presence of mind to duck underwater so they wouldn't see him make it to land. His mother died when he was fourteen. He spent his last night at the family home sleeping beside his mother's coffin, seeking not only solace, but a way to face his own fear of death.
Soon after, he was sent to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with a sister and her husband. He and his uncle argued frequently and Parks was finally turned out onto the street to fend for himself at age 15. Struggling to survive, he worked in brothels, and as a singer, piano player, bus boy, traveling waiter, and semi-pro basketball player. In 1929, he briefly worked in a gentlemen's club, the Minnesota Club. There he not only observed the trappings of success, but was able to read many books from the club library. When the Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought an end to the club, he jumped a train to Chicago, where he managed to land a job in a flophouse.
While working as a waiter in a railroad dining car, he began seeing the portfolios of photographers in picture magazines and decided to become a photographer.
At the age of 25, Parks was struck by photographs of migrant workers in a magazine. He bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brillant, for $7.50 at a Seattle, Washington, pawnshop and taught himself how to take photos. The photography clerks who developed Parks's first roll of film applauded his work and prompted him to seek a fashion assignment at a women's clothing store in St. Paul, Minnesota, owned by Frank Murphy. Those photographs caught the eye of Marva Louis, wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. She encouraged Parks and his wife, Sally Alvis, to move to Chicago in 1940, where he began a portrait business and specialized in photographs of society women. Parks's photographic work in Chicago, especially in capturing the myriad experiences of African Americans across the city, led him to receive the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, in 1941, paying him $200 a month and offering him his choice of employer, which, in turn, contributed to being asked to join the Farm Security Administration, which was chronicling the nation's social conditions, under the auspice of Roy Stryker.
Over the next few years, Parks moved from job to job, developing a freelance portrait and fashion photographer sideline. He began to chronicle the city's South Side black ghetto and, in 1941, an exhibition of those photographs won Parks a photography fellowship with the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Working at the FSA as a trainee under Roy Stryker, Parks created one of his best-known photographs, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., named after the iconic Grant Wood painting, American Gothic--a legendary painting of a traditional, stoic, white American farm couple--which bore a striking, but ironic, resemblance to Parks' photograph of a black menial laborer. Parks' "haunting" photograph shows a black woman, Ella Watson, who worked on the cleaning crew of the FSA building, standing stiffly in front of an American flag hanging on the wall, a broom in one hand and a mop in the background. Parks had been inspired to create the image after encountering racism repeatedly in restaurants and shops in the segregated capital city.
Upon viewing the photograph, Stryker said that it was an indictment of America, and that it could get all of his photographers fired. He urged Parks to keep working with Watson, which led to a series of photographs of her daily life. Parks said later that his first image was overdone and not subtle; other commentators have argued that it drew strength from its polemical nature and its duality of victim and survivor, and thus affected far more people than his subsequent pictures of Mrs. Watson.
(Parks' overall body of work for the federal government--using his camera "as a weapon"--would draw far more attention from contemporaries and historians than that of all other black photographers in federal service at the time. Today, most historians reviewing federally commissioned black photographers of that era focus almost exclusively on Parks.)
After the FSA disbanded, Parks remained in Washington, D.C. as a correspondent with the Office of War Information, where he photographed the all-black 332d Fighter Group. He was unable to follow the group in the overseas war theatre, so he resigned from the O.W.I. He would later follow Stryker to the Standard Oil Photography Project in New Jersey, which assigned photographers to take pictures of small towns and industrial centers. The most striking work by Parks during 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); Self Portrait (1945); and Ferry Commuters, Staten Island, N.Y. (1946).
Parks renewed his search for photography jobs in the fashion world. Following his resignation from the Office of War Information, Parks moved to Harlem and became a freelance fashion photographer for Vogue under the editorship of Alexander Liberman. Despite racist attitudes of the day, Vogue editor, Liberman, hired him to shoot a collection of evening gowns. Parks photographed fashion for Vogue for the next few years and he developed the distinctive style of photographing his models in motion rather than in static poses. During this time, he published his first two books, Flash Photography (1947) and Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture (1948).
A 1948 photographic essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with America's leading photo-magazine, Life. His involvement with Life would last until 1972. For over 20 years, Parks produced photographs on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway, poverty, and racial segregation, as well as portraits of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, and Barbra Streisand. He became "one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States."
His photographs for Life magazine, namely his 1956 photo essay, titled "The Restraints: Open and Hidden," illuminated the effects of racial segregation while simultaneously following the everyday lives and activities of three families in and near Mobile, Alabama: the Thronton's, Causey's, and Tanner's. As curators at the High Museum of Art Atlanta note, while Parks' photo essay served as decisive documentation of the Jim Crow South and all of its effects, he did not simply focus on demonstrations, boycotts, and brutality that were associated with that period instead, however, he "emphasized the prosaic details" of the lives of several families.
An exhibition of photographs from a 1950 project Parks completed for Life was exhibited in 2015 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Parks returned to his hometown, Fort Scott, Kansas, where segregation persisted, and he documented conditions in the community and the contemporary lives of many of his eleven classmates from the segregated middle school they attended. The project included his commentary, but the work was never published by Life.
During his years with Life, Parks also wrote a few books on the subject of photography (particularly documentary photography), and in 1960 was named Photographer of the Year by the American Society of Magazine Photographers.
In the 1950s, Parks worked as a consultant on various Hollywood productions. He later directed a series of documentaries on black ghetto life that were commissioned by National Educational Television. With his film adaptation of his semi-autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree in 1969, Parks became Hollywood's first major black director. It was filmed in his home town of Fort Scott, Kansas. Parks also wrote the screenplay and composed the musical score for the film, with assistance from his friend, the composer Henry Brant.
Shaft, a 1971 detective film directed by Parks and starring Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, became a major hit that spawned a series of films that would be labeled as blaxploitation. The blaxploitation genre was one in which negative stereotypes of black males being involved with drugs, violence and women, were exploited for commercially successful films featuring black actors. Parks' feel for settings was confirmed by Shaft, with its portrayal of the super-cool leather-clad, black private detective hired to find the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem racketeer.
Parks also directed the 1972 sequel, Shaft's Big Score, in which the protagonist finds himself caught in the middle of rival gangs of racketeers. Parks's other directorial credits include The Super Cops (1974) and Leadbelly (1976), a biopic of the blues musician Huddie Ledbetter. In the 1980s, he made several films for television and composed the music and a libretto for Martin, a ballet tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., which premiered in Washington, D.C. during 1989. It was screened on national television on King's birthday in 1990.
In 2000, as an homage, he had a cameo appearance in the Shaft sequel that starred Samuel L. Jackson in the title role as the namesake and nephew of the original John Shaft. In the cameo scene, Parks was sitting playing chess when Jackson greeted him as, "Mr. P.".
His first job was as a piano player in a brothel when he was a teenager. Parks also performed as a jazz pianist. His song "No Love", composed in another brothel, was performed during a national radio broadcast by Larry Funk and his orchestra in the early 1930s.
Parks composed Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1953) at the encouragement of black American conductor, Dean Dixon, and his wife Vivian, a pianist, and with the help of the composer Henry Brant. He completed Tree Symphony in 1967. In 1989, he composed and directed Martin, a ballet dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader who had been assassinated.
Starting in the late-1940s, Parks began writing--a second career that would produce 15 books and lead to his role as a prominent black filmmaker--starting with books on the art and craft of photography. Beginning in the 1960s, Parks branched out into literature, writing The Learning Tree (1963). He authored several books of poetry, which he illustrated with his own photographs, and he wrote three volumes of memoirs--A Choice of Weapons (1966), Voices in the Mirror (1990), and A Hungry Heart (2005) .
In 1981, Parks turned to fiction with Shannon, a novel about Irish immigrants fighting their way up the social ladder in turbulent early 20th-century New York. Parks' writing accomplishments include novels, poetry, autobiography, and non-fiction that includes photographic instructional manuals and film-making books. During this period[when?], Parks also wrote the poem "The Funeral".
Parks' photography-related abstract oil paintings were showcased in a 1981 exhibition at Alex Rosenberg Gallery in New York titled "Gordon Parks: Expansions: The Aesthetic Blend of Painting and Photography."
Parks was married and divorced three times. He married Sally Alvis in Minneapolis during 1933 and they divorced in 1961. He married Elizabeth Campbell in 1962 and they divorced in 1973. Parks first met Chinese-American editor Genevieve Young (stepdaughter of Chinese diplomat Wellington Koo) in 1962 when he began writing The Learning Tree. At that time, his publisher assigned her to be his editor. They became romantically involved at a time when they both were divorcing previous spouses, and married in 1973. They divorced in 1979. Candace Bushnell claims to have dated Parks in 1976, when she was 18 and he was 58. For many years, Parks was romantically involved with Gloria Vanderbilt, the railroad heiress and designer. Their relationship evolved into a deep friendship that endured throughout his lifetime.
Parks had four children: Gordon, Jr., David, Leslie, and Toni (Parks-Parsons). His oldest son Gordon Parks, Jr., whose talents resembled his father's, was killed in a plane crash in 1979 in Kenya, where he had gone to direct a film. Parks has five grandchildren: Alain, Gordon III, Sarah, Campbell, and Satchel. Malcolm X honored Parks when he asked him to be the godfather of his daughter, Qubilah Shabazz.
With his film Shaft (along with Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, released earlier the same year), Parks is credited with co-creating the genre of blaxploitation, an ethnic subgenre of the exploitation film that emerged in the United States during the early 1970s. The action film also helped to alter Hollywood's view of African Americans, introducing the black action hero into mainstream cinema.
Director Spike Lee cites Parks as an inspiration, stating "You get inspiration where it comes from. It doesn't have to be because I'm looking at his films. The odds that he got these films made under, when there were no black directors, is enough."
Parks is referenced in Kendrick Lamar's music video, for his song, "Element". In the music video some of Parks' iconic photographs are transformed into moving vignettes.
Several parties are recipient or heirs to different parts of Parks' archival record.
The Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville, New York (formerly in Chappaqua, New York), reports that it "permanently preserves the work of Gordon Parks, makes it available to the public through exhibitions, books, and electronic media," The organization also says it "supports artistic and educational activities that advance what Gordon described as 'the common search for a better life and a better world.'" That support includes scholarships for "artistic" students, and assistance to researchers. Their headquarters includes an exhibition space with rotating photography exhibits, open free to the public, with guided group tours available by arrangement. The foundation also admits "qualified researchers" to their archive, by appointment. The foundation collaborates with other organizations and institutions, nationally and internationally, to advance its aims.
The Gordon Parks Museum/Center in Fort Scott, Kansas, reports that it holds dozens of Parks' photos, both given to the Museum by Parks, and various belongings bequeathed to the Museum by him upon his death. The collection includes "awards and medals, personal photos, paintings and drawings of Gordon, plaques, certificates, diplomas and honorary doctorates, selected books and articles, clothing, record player, tennis racquet, magazine articles, his collection of Life magazines and much more." The museum has also separately received some of Parks' cameras, writing desk and photos of him.
The Library of Congress (LOC) reports that, in 1995, it "acquired Parks' personal collection, including papers, music, photographs, films, recordings, drawings and other products of his... career."
The LOC was already home to a federal archive that included Parks' first major photojournalism projects--photographs he produced for the Farm Security Administration (1942-1943), and for the Office of War Information (1943-1945).
In April 2000, the LOC awarded Parks its accolade "Living Legend", one of only 26 writers and artists so honored by the LOC. The LOC also holds Parks's published and unpublished scores, and several of his films and television productions.
Parks' autobiographical motion picture, The Learning Tree, and his African-American, anti-hero action-drama Shaft, have both been selected to be permanently preserved as part of the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.The Learning Tree was one of the original group of 25 films first selected by the LOC for the National Film Registry.
The National Archives also hold the film, My Father, Gordon Parks (1969: archive 306.08063A) -- a film about Parks and his production of his autobiographical motion picture, The Learning Tree,--is preserved in the National Archives of the United States--along with a print (from the original) of Solomon Nortup's Odyssey, a film made by Parks for a Public Broadcasting System telecast about the ordeal of slave. The Archives also hold various photos from Parks' years in government service.
In 1991, Wichita State University (WSU), in Wichita, the largest city in Parks' home state of Kansas, awarded Parks its highest honor for achievement: the President's Medal. However, in the mid-1990s, after Parks entrusted WSU with a collection of 150 of his famous photos, WSU--for various reasons (including confusion as to whether they were a gift or loan, and whether the University could adequately protect and preserve them) -- returned them, stunning and deeply upsetting Parks. A further snub came from Wichita's city officials, who also declined the opportunity to acquire many of Parks' papers and photos.
By 2000, however, WSU and Parks had healed their division. The university resumed honoring Parks and accumulating his work. In 2008, the Gordon Parks Foundation selected WSU as repository for 140 boxes of Parks' photos, manuscripts, letters and other papers. In 2014, another 125 of Park's photos were acquired from the Foundation by WSU, with help from Wichita philanthropists Paula and Barry Downing, for display at the university's Ulrich Museum of Art.
The Gordon Parks Collection in the Richard L. D. and Marjorie J. Morse Department Special Collections at Kansas State University primarily documents the creation of his film The Learning Tree.
Parks' work is held in the following public collection: