Parks, Gordon (Alexander Buchanan) 1912-

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PARKS, Gordon (Alexander Buchanan) 1912-

PERSONAL: Born November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, KS; son of Andrew Jackson and Sarah (Ross) Parks; married Sally Alvis, 1933 (divorced,1961); married Elizabeth Campbell, December, 1962 (divorced, 1973); married Genevieve Young (a book editor), August 26, 1973; children: (first marriage) Gordon, Jr. (deceased), Toni (Mrs. Jean-Luc Brouillaud), David; (second marriage) Leslie. Education: Attended high school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Methodist.

ADDRESSES: Home—860 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017. Agent—(Film) Ben Benjamin, Creative Management Associates, 9255 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.

CAREER: Photographer, writer, film director, and composer. Worked at various jobs prior to 1937; freelance fashion photographer in Minneapolis, 1937–42; photographer with Farm Security Administration, 1942–43, Office of War Information, 1944, and Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, 1945–48; Life, New York, NY, photo-journalist, 1948–72; Essence (magazine), New York, NY, editorial director, 1970–73. President of Winger Corp. Director of films, beginning 1968, including The Learning Tree, Warner Bros., 1968, Shaft, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), 1971, Shaft's Big Score, MGM, 1972, The Super Cops, MGM, 1974, Leadbelly, Paramount, 1975, and several documentaries. Composer of concertos and sonatas performed by symphony orchestras in the United States and Europe. Exhibitions: Retrospective exhibitions staged at California African American Museum, Los Angeles, 2000, and George Eastman House, Rochester, NY, 2003.

MEMBER: Authors Guild (member of council, 1973–74), Authors League of America, Black Academy of Arts and Letters (fellow), Directors Guild of America (member of national council, 1973–76), Newspaper Guild, American Society of Magazine Photographers, Association of Composers, and Directors, American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Directors Guild of New York (member of council), Urban League, Players Club (New York, NY), Kappa Alpha Mu.

AWARDS, HONORS: Rosenwald Foundation fellow, 1942; Photographer of the Year, Association of Magazine Photographers; Frederic W. Brehm Award, 1962; Mass Media Award, National Conference of Christians and Jews, for outstanding contributions to better human relations, 1964; Carr Van Adna Journalism Award, University of Miami, 1964, Ohio University, 1970; voted photographer-writer who had done the most to promote understanding among nations of the world, Nikon, 1967; A.F.D., Maryland Institute of Fine Arts, 1968; Litt.D., University of Connecticut, 1969, and Kansas State University, 1970; Spingarn Medal from National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1972; H.H.D., St. Olaf College, 1973, Rutgers University, 1980, and Pratt Institute, 1981; Christopher Award, 1980, for Flavio; President's Fellow award, Rhode Island School of Design, 1984; named Kansan of the Year, Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas, 1986; World Press Photo award, 1988; Artist of Merit, Josef Sudek Medal, 1989; inducted into International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, 2000; Robie Award for humanitarianism, Jackie Robinson Foundation, 2002. Additional awards include honorary degrees from Fairfield University, 1969, Boston University, 1969, Macalaster College, 1974, Colby College, 1974, Lincoln University, 1975, Columbia College, 1977, Suffolk University, 1982, Kansas City Art Institute, 1984, Art Center and College of Design, 1986, Hamline University, 1987, American International College, 1988, Savannah College of Art and Design, 1988, University of Bradford (England), 1989, Rochester Institute of Technology, 1989, Parsons School of Design, 1991, Manhattanville College, 1992, College of New Rochelle, 1992, Skidmore College, 1993, and Montclair State University, 1994, and awards from Syracuse University School of Journalism, 1963, University of Miami, 1964, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1964, Art Directors Club, 1964, 1968, and International Center of Photography, 1990.


Flash Photography, [New York], 1947.

Camera Portraits: The Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1948.

The Learning Tree (novel; also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1963.

A Choice of Weapons (autobiography), Harper (New York, NY) 1966, reprinted, Minnesota Historical Society, 1986.

A Poet and His Camera (poems), self-illustrated with photographs, Viking (New York, NY), 1968.

Gordon Parks: Whispers of Intimate Things (poems), self-illustrated with photographs, Viking (New York, NY), 1971.

Born Black (essays), self-illustrated with photographs, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1971.

In Love (poems), self-illustrated with photographs, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA) 1971.

(Contributor of photographs) Jane Wagner, J. T., Dell (New York, NY), 1972.

Moments without Proper Names (poems), self-illustrated with photographs, Viking (New York, NY), 1975.

Flavio, Norton (New York, NY), 1978.

To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir, Norton (New York, NY), 1979.

Shannon (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1981.

Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1990.

(Author of foreword) Ann Banks, editor, Harlem: Photographs by Aaron Siskind, 1932–1940, Smithsonian Institution Press (Washington, D.C.), 1991.

(Author of introduction) Mandy Vahabzadeh, Soul Unsold, Graystone Books (Santa Monica, CA), 1992.

(Author of introduction) Ming Smith, A Ming Breakfast: Grits and Scrambled Moments, De Ming Dynasty (New York, NY), 1992.

Arias in Silence, Bulfinch (Boston, MA), 1994.

Glimpses Toward Infinity, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1996.

(With Eli Reed) Black in America, Norton (New York, NY), 1997.

Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, Bulfinch (Boston, MA), 1997.

(Author of introduction) Archie Givens, editor, Spirited Minds: African American Books for Our Sons and Our Brothers, Norton (New York, NY), 1997.

A Star for Noon: An Homage to Women in Images, Poetry, and Music (includes compact disc), Bullfinch (Boston, MA), 2000.

Contributor of articles to Show, Vogue, Venture, and other periodicals.


(And composer of musical score) The Learning Tree (based on novel of same title), Warner Brothers-Seven Arts, 1968.

Shaft, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1971.

Shaft's Big Score, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1972.

The Super Cops, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1974.

Leadbelly, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1976.

Also author of Martin (ballet), 1990, and of television documentaries produced by National Educational Television, including Flavio and Mean Streets.

SIDELIGHTS: Gordon Parks's "life constitutes an American success story of almost mythic proportions," Andy Grundberg once commented in New York Times. A high school dropout who had to fend for himself at the age of sixteen, Parks overcame the difficulties of being poor and uneducated to become a Life magazine photographer; a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; a composer; and a film director and producer. The wide scope of Parks's expertise is all the more impressive when viewed in its historical context, for many of the fields he succeeded in formerly had been closed to blacks. Parks was the first black person to work at Life magazine, Vogue, the Office of War Information, and the Federal Security Administration. He was also the first black to write, direct, produce, and score a film, The Learning Tree, based on his 1963 novel. Parks maintains that his drive to succeed in such a variety of professions was motivated by fear. "I was so frightened I might fail that I figured if one thing didn't work out I could fall back on another," Parks stated in the Detroit News.

Born and raised in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks was sent to live with a sister and her husband in Minneapolis after his mother died when he was fifteen. Shortly afterwards, Parks was evicted from the household and had to earn a living. His first professional endeavor was photography, a craft he practiced as a freelance fashion photographer in Minneapolis and later as a Rosenwald Foundation fellow in 1942. In 1948 he was hired as a Life magazine photographer, and over his twenty-year affiliation with Life photographed world events, celebrities, musicians, artists, and politicians. In addition to his work for Life, Parks has exhibited his photography and illustrated his books with photos. In a New York Times review of one of Parks's photography exhibitions, Hilton Kramer noted that while Parks is a versatile photographer, "it is in the pictures where his 'black childhood of confusion and poverty' still makes itself felt that he moves us most deeply." Grundberg similarly noted that Parks's "most memorable pictures, and the most vividly felt sections of the exhibition, deal specifically with the conditions and social fabric of black Americans."

Parks found, however, that despite his love of and expertise in photography, he needed to express in words the intense feelings about his childhood. This need resulted in his first novel, The Learning Tree, which in some ways parallels Parks's youth. The novel concerns the Wingers, a black family living in a small town in Kansas during the 1920s, and focuses in particular on Newt, the Wingers' adolescent son. A Time reviewer commented: "[Parks's] unabashed nostalgia for what was good there, blended with sharp recollections of staggering violence and fear, makes an immensely readable, sometimes unsettling book."

Parks explores his life further in several autobiographical volumes. A Choice of Weapons begins when Parks is sixteen and describes how, after his mother's death and an unsuccessful stint living with relatives, Parks found himself out on the street. For a decade, Parks struggled to feed and clothe himself, all the while cultivating his ambition to be a photographer. The book's theme, according to Washington Post contributor Christopher Schemering, is that "one's choice of weapons must be dignity and hard work over the self-destructive, if perhaps understandable, emotions of hate and violence." Alluding to the unfortunate circumstances of his youth, Parks expressed a similar view in the Detroit News. "I have a right to be bitter, but I would not let bitterness destroy me. As I tell young black people, you can fight back, but do it in a way to help yourself and not destroy yourself." Observing that "what [Parks] has refused to accept is the popular definition of what being black is and the limitations that the definition automatically imposes," Saunders Redding concluded in New York Times Book Review: "A Choice of Weapons is … a perceptive narrative of one man's struggle to realize the values (defined as democratic and especially American) he has been taught to respect."

To Smile in Autumn, Parks's second autobiographical volume, covers the years from 1943 to 1979. Here Parks celebrates "the triumph of achievement, the abundance and glamour of a productive life," wrote New York Times Book Review contributor Mel Watkins. Parks also acknowledges, however, that his success was not without a price. Ralph Tyler commented in the Chicago Tribune Book World: "Although this third memoir doesn't have the drama inherent in a fight for survival, it has a drama of its own: the conflict confronting a black American who succeeds in the white world." As Parks writes in To Smile in Autumn: "In escaping the mire, I had lost friends along the way…. In one world I was a social oddity. In the other world I was almost a stranger."

Schemering noted that the book contains material "recast" from Parks's earlier work, Born Black, and is in this respect somewhat disappointing. He wrote: "It's unfortunate to see a major talent and cultural force coast on former successes. Yet, even at half-mast, Parks manages a sporadic eloquence, as in the last few pages when he pays tribute to his son Gordon Parks, Jr., who died in a plane crash." Watkins offered this view: "Gordon Parks emerges here as a Renaissance man who has resolutely pursued success in several fields. His memoir is sustained and enlivened by his urbanity and generosity."

In Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography Parks again recounts his amazing life, from the pain of his mother 's death to his later career success as a photographer and filmmaker. Writing in Washington Post Book World, Hettie Jones noted that "the book grabs your attention at once and keeps it through the century and across three continents." Similarly, New York Times Book Review contributor Michael Eric Dyson remarked that Voices is Parks's "most poignant self-portrait" to date and calls the volume "an eloquent missive from the front line of poetry and pain."

In 1997's Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, Parks presents a collection of photos chronicling his career accompanied by occasional narratives describing the time and circumstances associated with the photos. Writing in Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, William E. Powell called the book "one that compels me to reflection and to commentary."



Authors in the News, Volume 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.

Black Literature Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 16, 1981.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.

Harnan, Terry, Gordon Parks: Black Photographer and Film Maker, Garrard (Champaign, IL), 1972.

Monaco, James, American Film Now: The People, the Power, the Money, the Movies, New American Library (New York, NY), 1979.

Parks, Gordon, A Choice of Weapons, Harper (New York, NY), 1966, reprinted, Minnesota Historical Society (St. Paul, MN), 1986.

Parks, Gordon, The Learning Tree, Fawcett (Greenwich, CT), 1987.

Parks, Gordon, To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir, Norton (New York, NY), 1979.

Parks, Gordon, Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1990.

Rolansky, John D., editor, Creativity, North-Holland Publishing (Amsterdam, Holland), 1970.

Turk, Midge, Gordon Parks, Crowell (New York, NY), 1971.


America, July 24, 1971.

American Photo, September-October, 1991.

American Visions, December, 1989; February, 1991; February-March, 1993, p. 14.

Best Sellers, April 1, 1971.

Black Enterprise, January, 1992.

Black World, August, 1973.

Chicago Tribune Book World, December 30, 1979, Ralph Tyler, review of To Smile in Autumn.

Commonweal, September 5, 1969.

Cue, August 9, 1969.

Detroit Free Press, January 9, 1966.

Detroit News, February 1, 1976.

Ebony, July, 1946.

Entertainment Weekly, March 27, 1992.

Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, May, 2000, William E. Powell, review of Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, p. 339.

Films and Filming, April, 1972; October, 1972.

Films in Review, October, 1972.

Focus on Film, October, 1971.

Horn Book, April, 1971; August, 1971.

Jet, August 29, 1988; April 30, 1990; July 31, 1995, p. 21.

Journal of American History, December, 1987.

Library Journal, January, 1992.

Life, October, 1994, p. 26; February, 1996, p. 6.

Modern Maturity, June-July, 1989; October-November, 1990.

Newsweek, April 29, 1968; August 11, 1969; July 17, 1972; April 19, 1976.

New York, June 14, 1976.

New Yorker, November 2, 1963; February 13, 1966.

New York Herald Tribune, August 25, 1963.

New York Times, October 4, 1975; December 3, 1975; March 1, 1986.

New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1963; February 13, 1966; December 23, 1979, Mel Watkins, review of To Smile in Autumn; December 9, 1990, Michael Eric Dyson, review of Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography, p. 19; March 1, 1996, p. 16.

PSA (Photographic Society of America) Journal, November, 1992.

Publishers Weekly, October 12, 1990.

Saturday Review, February 12, 1966; August 9, 1969.

School Library Journal, February, 1991.

Show Business, August 2, 1969.

Smithsonian, April, 1989.

Time, September 6, 1963; September 29, 1969; May 24, 1976.

Variety, November 6, 1968; June 25, 1969.

Vogue, October 1, 1968; January, 1976.

Washington Post, October 20, 1978; January 24, 1980.

Washington Post Book World, November 18, 1990, Hettie Jones, review of Voices in the Mirror, p. 4.


Online NewsHour, (January 6, 1998), transcript of interview with Parks.

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Parks, Gordon (Alexander Buchanan) 1912-

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