African American poet, writer, and photographer best known for his dramatic photographic images of Southern segregation and the urban poor in Harlem and the slums of Brazil.

The New York Times wrote of the former Life Magazine photographer that his work is "uniquely marked by the power of personal conviction."

In the US, Parks is also widely known for his work as film director, most notably for the exploitation flick "Shaft", as well as "Leadbelly" and "The Learning Tree."

Gordon Parks was born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks, in Kansas in 1912. He was the youngest of 15 kids in a poor family and didn't attend an integrated school until he was in high school; there he was taught to not aspire to "anything above the menial." After his mother died at 16, he wound up homeless in Minnesota, but managed to get a job playing the piano in a brothel. He moved on to being a busboy, which gave him time to go back to school and begin spending a lot of time reading at the library. When the Depression hit in 1929, he went back to the bordello, but he started composing his own songs, which were in much demand. He moved around in the next few years, with an assortment of lowpaying jobs and trying to get somewhere with his songwriting.

On a train, Park discovered the art of photography in a magazine, bought himself a camera, and promptly got his pictures up for display in the windows of the Eastman Kodak Company. He got the attention of the right people, including Joe Louis' wife, and manged to slide into two seemingly opposite genres: fashion photography and social commentary photography. He was photographing candid scenes Chicago's poor working class, and classically posed portraits of Chicago's ladies of high society. He went on to work with Vogue, Glamour, and Life. Can you imagine the kind of talent, perseveration, and nerve it took for a black man to become a huge success at photographing white women in those decades? Parks completed 300 assignments for Life, staying with them till 1972. Parks used this position to find a conservative, mainstream, middle-class, white audience to cover the civil rights movement and so on. Malcom X wrote, in his autobiography: "Success among whites never made Parks lose touch with black reality."

Parks also began to develop a writing and film career. He wrote instructional books on photography, autobiographies (yes, plural), civil rights essays, and The Learning Tree, a fictionalized autobiography. He helped found Essence, the still-running magazine for black women. And he produced, directed, and scored the film version of "The Learning Tree"--he was the first African-American to do so for Warner Brothers. Among others, he directed Shaft and its original sequel, both a cut above other so-called "blaxpoitation" films.

Gordon Parks has written, directed, composed, scored, photographed, and filmed more works than I could possibly describe in this already too-long mini-bio, and also won a huge number of awards all over the world. His current work includes less depictive art--women melded with landscape, aquamarine moons over blue deserts. (Yes, he's still going, and growing, at 89.) It's extraodinarily beautiful, as are the alabaster-skinned women of his fashion shoots, and speaks as directly as his work in the cause of social justice. I recommend the retrospective collection book titled 'Half Past Autumn,' which is also the title of a retrospective show currently touring the USA (2001).

“ At half past autumn I’m all roses, thorns, shadows, and dreams; still touching what exists; still weaving summer into those walls of winter.”

Gordon Parks began creating photographs in 1938 when he bought his first camera, a Voightlander Brilliant, for $7.50. He was married with two children and surviving on wages earned playing the piano in a brothel and washing dishes. He first became interested in photography when he was working as a waiter on a train. He picked up a magazine that featured images created by photographers whom were a part of the Farm Security Administration. The images were of people during the dust bowl and the shanty homes many of them barely survived in. He considered his camera a “weapon…to use against a warped past and an uncertain future.”

He began his photographic career as a fashion photographer. The wife of the owner of an exclusive women’s fashion store gave Parks the chance to create some images of their fashions. He had no work to show her but she gave him the chance nonetheless. He accidentally double exposed the entire role of film excluding a single image. He developed this image and the woman was so impressed she gave him a second chance. That job leads him to Chicago where he continued with fashion photography until 1942. After Chicago he was invited to join the Farm Security Administration in Washington D.C.

Washington D.C. was a difficult place for Parks and for African Americans in general. Racism was still in full force with white restaurants and white clothing stores. He began looking through photographic files at the FSA. He also talked to African Americans in the area to learn about their pasts and what they had experienced living in Washing D.C. surrounded by bigotry. One woman he spoke with was Ella Watson, as she mopped the floor at the FSA. After speaking with her about her life with racism he asked to take her photograph, she agreed. He photographed her with a mop in one hand and a broom in the other, while standing in front of an American flag. This image, a statement about America and racism, became one of Parks most well known images titled, “American Gothic.”

During his apprenticeship in Washington D.C. he went to Harlem in New York City. When he arrived he fount himself in the middle of a riot. Chaos was surrounding him with guns being fired, looting teenagers, and brawls breaking out in the streets that were lined with shattered storefronts. Parks never forgot what he saw in Harlem.

In 1943 the FSA was completely absorbed by the Office of War Information. America was in the Second World War and soon Parks was overseas photographing the training and fighting of African American fighter pilots. He notes that this may have been a mistake because he was forced to leave his two children and pregnant wife home without him. Regardless of how decorated the pilots in Parks images were he reached roadblocks when bringing the photographs back to Washington D.C., the government just wasn’t ready to publicize the African Americans fighting against Hitler.

In 1944 he continued to do some work for the OWI, but was looking for something more. His wife had moved back in with her parents in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Parks decided he wanted to begin working in fashion photography again. He went to Harpers Bazaar magazine. The head of the magazine stated how the images impressed him but that the magazine, being part of the Hearst organization, forbid hiring Negroes. He then tried Vogue magazine where he got the job and began working with color images of the finest clothes in America and Paris.

He enjoyed fashion photography but could not forget the scene he had experienced years before in Harlem. One day he walked into the office of Life magazine, without an appointment, and asked for a job. Surprisingly the fashion and feature story editors both viewed his work and wanted him to work for them. Parks was shocked that the impromptu interview had gone this far. He states, “Suddenly for me, two extremely diverse worlds were about to converge – one of crime, the other of high fashion.”

He began his work photographing the gang warfare in Harlem after talking with the 16-year-old gang leader Red Jackson. He offered Red the use of his car in exchange for allowing Parks to follow him around and take photographs. After discussing the proposition with the gang’s warlords, Red agreed and Parks began photographing the gang. Parks went back and forth between the rough streets of gang life and the high fashion houses.

Three months later the essay was ready for publication in Life magazine. The editors had chosen an image of Red holding a smoking gun to use as the cover. Parks knew that the image could get Red into trouble with the police in addition to voiding the trust that existed between them. Parks promptly got a hold of the negative and cut it into pieces.

After the essay was published Parks received a great deal of recognition. He was congratulated by the head of Life magazine and then asked if he would accompany the fashion editor to Paris. This was an amazing opportunity for Parks who had not even dared to dream about actually going to Paris. He spent two weeks photographing the fine fashions and earning more salary than he thought possible.

After spending time in Europe Life sent Parks back to his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas to photograph eleven people from his junior high school class to see how their lives had turned out. This assignment brought Parks past back into his life. He found that not much had changed in Fort Scott, the segregated junior high has been abolished and African Americans at the high school were finally allowed to play on sports teams, but as far as change is concerned that was about the extent of it.

In 1950, Life sent him to Paris once again this time for two years and this time his wife and three children came along. Paris was “the flower of Europe,” as stated by Parks. He and his family settled into a white neighborhood and no rocks were thrown through his windows, they had for the first time been accepted. While living in Paris, Parks attended a bullfight in Madrid, Spain. During the fight a charging bull killed a matador. The wife of the matador was not in attendance at the fight, she was at home giving birth to their child. This event made a mark on Parks. He went home and wrote a piece of piano music inspired by the event. An American conductor who was also living in Paris, Dean Dixon, promised to perform Parks' concerto whenever he finished it. Within six months a recorded copy of the concerto was in the hands of Henry Brant of New York.

Parks worked both in color and in black and white. He describes the view many photographers had and still do have about color images. They believe that you cannot “express the real truth of the subject matter” unless it is in black and white. Parks disagrees and believed that both types of images have their place. He describes color in this manner, “The spirit of color dwells within the subject matter, which is unending.”

In 1956 after returning from his stay in Paris Parks was asked to return to the subject of segregation for Life magazine. This time Parks was sent to the Deep South, namely Alabama, where racism was still as fervent as ever. While in Alabama his life was often in danger, he was prey for the racist huntsmen.

In 1957 his assignment was to photograph crime across America. He calls this assignment “a journey through hell.” Parks found himself climbing through windows and watching as young children witnessed their father be pistol whipped by a cop. Parks remembered one comment made by a police officer just before they kicked in a door. The comment from the officer was, “If you want I’ll put a bullet in some bastard’s ass when we go in, it’ll make a good picture.” The comment just one example of what Parks experienced during this assignment.

Parks met one inmate who was spending his last night in jail before he was to be executed for the murder of a boy who he had knifed to death. The man had never met the boy before and states that he was “just a little pissed off at the time.” When Parks asked how he felt about dying he said he was “sure happy about it.” He asked Parks top be there for the execution to “say a little prayer” for him. The next day as Parks watch the beginnings of the execution process he regretted being there. He watched the tears of the prisoner through the glass. Parks describes the execution of the murderer as, “One evil, cloaked in cold judicial morality, has just fed upon another.”

In 1961 Parks went to Catacumba, Brazil. Here he found himself in the middle of the worst poverty he had ever seen. Shortly after arriving there he met a boy named Flavio de Silva. He became the subject of Parks assignment, “Poverty in Latin America.” He lived in a shack of a home with his father, pregnant mother, and seven siblings.

Parks assumed that with the amount of material he returned to New York with that it would be at least a fourteen-page spread and possibly a cover. Parks was shocked when he saw that one image of Flavio was to be published. The head of the magazine didn’t think people wanted to see the real conditions in Brazil. Parks immediately wrote a letter of resignation to his boss. The next day New York Times magazine had an article on the impoverished conditions in South America warning the government that something needed to be done. The day after that a ten-page spread on Flavio went to publication. Parks tore up the resignation.

The readers of Life magazine sent donations in abundance for the da Silva family. Parks returned to Brazil and told the family that they would be moving to a new home with all new things. The family went to Sears where they all received new shoes and clothes to go with the new furnishings in their new home. Flavio had been suffering from severe asthma attacks and was near death. An institute in America offered to treat him for free. Parks brought Flavio back to America with him. Flavio spent two years in the institute where he became well again. He then returned to his family in Brazil.

Ten years later Parks returned to Brazil once again to visit Flavio. He had his own family now. He had enough money from his job to support his wife and two children. His parents and siblings were not doing as well. His father had left his mother and only came on occasion to take the money that she had earned. He was worried about their condition but had his own responsibilities now. He asked Parks to do what he could to get him a job so he could move his family to America. Parks was unable to. Thirty-five years later Flavio’s wife had left him and he was once again living in poverty.

In 1967, Parks was once again focusing on poverty. This time he was a world away from Brazil but seeing a family in the same situation. The Fontenelle family was living in Harlem, New York. They were a family of eleven people. Parks came to their home one night to find the wife in tears. The night before she had taken her husband to the hospital. He had been frustrated with his job and taken his anger out on his family by beating them. For revenge Mrs. Fontenelle boiled a pot of dishwater, added honey, and poured it on her husband. She said the honey was added to “make it stick.”

After the story had been published the same out pouring of donations came from the public as it had for the da Silva family. The Fontenelle’s moved to a home in Long Island, New York where Mr. Fontenelle had a new job. However, only three months later he came home drunk and dropped a lit cigarette onto the couch. The home went up in flames. Mr Fontenelle and his son never made it out of the home. The rest of the family fled back to Harlem.

In 1990 Parks returned to Harlem to see Ms. Fontenelle. Most of her family had died from drug overdoses or AIDS. The children who had not died were either sick or in prison. Only one child remained, Richard, she could only wish that he would make it before she died.

The civil rights movement was in full swing by 1963 and Parks was there to cover it. Parks wanted to focus on the Nation of Islam. He spoke to Malcolm X who directed him toward the Messenger who would have to grant him permission. He did receive permission. Parks became very close to Malcolm and began calling him brother. After a while Malcolm asked Parks to be the godfather of his daughter, Parks accepted.

Parks wrote his first of many autobiographies in 1963. It described his childhood growing up in Kansas. The book was titled, “The Learning Tree.” The book soon became a best seller and Parks was invited to Hollywood. He went to the Warner Brothers Studio and began production on his film based on the book. Parks was now the first black director in Hollywood. Not only was he the director of “The Learning Tree” but also the writer, producer, and composer of the score. After seven years the Library of Congress selected the film to become part of the National Film Registry.

Parks had left his job at Life magazine when he headed to California. However, this was not the end of his connection to the publication. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assasinated by a white man Parks headed to the funeral for Life. In response to the death of King Parks stated, “If Martin Luther King’s death doesn’t unite us, all of us are committing to suicide.”

Parks returned to California to direct and produce films. His second film was “Shaft” and was the film that truly opened doors in Hollywood for African American directors. He also created "Shaft’s Big Score,” The Super Cops,” “Leadbelly,” and “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey.” These films all did relatively well, with the exception of “Leadbelly.” After a friend phone Parks to inform him that the film had just opened in a "porno house" he left Hollywood.

Parks son, Gordon Jr., had also been directing films in Hollywood. He was in Kenya working on his fourth film when his plane crashed and he died. Parks had to break the news to Gordon’s Jr’s pregnant wife.

Three years later Parks received a letter from the daughter of his son David. Sarah was her name and she had been adopted at a very young age and was ready to meet her birth family. She had a daughter of her own so at this point Parks realized that he was a great grandfather. David soon contacted Sarah and she became part of the family. The Parks family was as culturally diverse as America itself. In his bloodlines were the nationalities of Armenian, Cherokee, Chinese, English, French, Israeli, Scottish, Swedish, and Yugoslavian. Parks describes his family as “one huge kaleidoscope.”

Parks continues to create images to this day. He describes his recent work as the pursuit of the “horizons of my imagination.” The images are in color and are quite abstract when compared to the documentary photography many know him for. They depict the elegance of nature.

Sources:
"Gordon Parks Half Past Autumn" by Gordon Parks

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