Today we honor and celebrate master photographer, film pioneer, and activist Gordon Parks. Born to a poor farming family in Fort Scott, KS in 1912, Parks attended a segregated primary school. The small town could not afford two high school, but the integrated facility did not allow African American students to participate in athletics or any official social activities. Parks was actively discouraged to consider higher education, despite his success in school to that point.
His mother died when he was 14, and he quickly left home, seeking a better life. He wandered the country, taking odd jobs. This included a stint as a brothel pianist, which led to later work writing music and composing a ballet based on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. He bought his first camera at the age of 25 and taught himself photography. He won a fellowship which earned him a spot working for the Farm Securities Administration alongside photography luminaries like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. He developed a distinctive style of capturing the social conditions of the day–finding his voice for social justice. After the FSA was dissolved in 1943, he was moved to the Office of War Information but left shortly thereafter, frustrated by the overt racism in the agency.
He began freelance work as a photographer and writer, most famously landing a gig with Vogue, earning a reputation for his images of models in motion. He composed a photo essay on a Harlem gang leader which brought him to the attention of Life magazine. He was hired as a staff photographer and occasional writer for the magazine, cracking the color barrier for professional photographers. There was plenty of racism in the industry, but his unique and powerful style allowed him to succeed in spite of this. He stayed with the magazine for 20 years, contributing many iconic images to its recording of American history. According to Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Center at Harvard University
Gordon Parks is the most important black photographer in the history of photojournalism. Long after the events that he photographed have been forgotten, his images will remain with us, testaments to the genius of his art, transcending time, place and subject matter.
In 1962, Parks wrote his autobiography, The Learning Tree. The book was well received, and in 1969 he wrote and directed a film based on it. This made him the first African American to write and direct a major motion picture. Two years later, he directed Shaft, one of the first “blaxploitation” films and a major box office success. He went on to direct a number of other films.
Beyond his pioneering work in photography, writing, and film, Parks was a dedicated activist, using his professional platform to chronicle people like Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael. He also participated in the 1963 March on Washington. He described all of his work as being tied to the central theme of freedom.
Not allowing anyone to set boundaries, cutting loose the imagination, and then making the new horizons.
Parks died in 2006 at the age of 93. He left behind an amazing body of work, including items included in official Library of Congress registries. The Gordon Parks foundation makes his works available and provides scholarships and other funding opportunities in education and the arts. These are based on his tenet of “the common search for a better life and a better world.” What an amazing and powerful legacy.
As an interesting side note, never underestimate where one might learn about important historical figures. I knew about Shaft and had seen some of Parks’ most famous portraits but didn’t really know about his life and career. I was inspired to find out more when his daughter appeared on Chopped, identifying herself as the child of an African American film pioneer. (She came in second.) Inspiration comes in the strangest moments we find our individual and collective voices for social justice.