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).