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Parks, Gordon

Gordon Parks

1912–2006

Photographer, movie director, writer, composer

Gordon Parks created himself as a Renaissance Man. Born into poverty, Parks concentrated his creative talents on being witness to the world around him. Through his photography, films, autobiographical works and poetry, and musical compositions, Parks offered the world his vision. He cut through social and racial barriers and stereotypes to reveal the essence of humanity, and in doing so helped to change the world. Proof of his impact can be found in his hundreds of awards, including the Jackie Robinson Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award and his induction into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 2002, as well as his more than 50 honorary doctorates. Yet his legacy lives on in his works and in the institutions created to celebrate him and to teach new generations. His approach to his careers, as he once explained to Black Enterprise, continues to inspire: "At first I wasn't sure that I had the talent, but I did know I had a fear of failure, and that fear compelled me to fight off anything that might abet it. I suffered evils, but without allowing them to rob me of the freedom to expand."

Driven by this determination to "drive failure from my dreams and to push on," Parks became the first black photographer to work at magazines like Life and Vogue, and the first black to work for the Office of War Information and the Farm Security Administration. Parks achieved these milestones in the 1940s. Later, in the 1960s, he helped break racial barriers in Hollywood as the first black director for a major studio. He co-produced, directed, wrote the screenplay, and composed the musical score for the film based on his 1963 novel, The Learning Tree. The film was later placed on the National Film Register by the Library of Congress.

Learned to be Independent at Young Age

The youngest of fifteen children, Gordon Parks was born into the devout Methodist family of Sarah Ross Parks and Andrew Jackson Parks in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas. It was a town "electrified with racial tension," Parks remembered. The family was dirt-poor, but the children were taught to value honor, education, and equality, as well as the importance of telling the truth. The security that Parks derived from the quiet strength of his father and his mother's love was shattered when she died during his fifteenth year. As he recalled in Voices in the Mirror, he spent the night alone with her coffin, an experience he found both "terror-filled and strangely reassuring."

After his mother's death, Parks was sent to live with a sister and her husband in St. Paul, Minnesota. His high school education was cut short when, after an argument, his sister's husband threw him out of the house just before Christmas one year. Suddenly and unexpectedly on his own, Parks was forced to take a variety of temporary jobs that included playing piano in a brothel and mopping floors. As a busboy at the Hotel Lowry in St. Paul, he played his own songs on the piano there and joined a band that was on tour after the leader heard him play.

Unfortunately, the band broke up when they returned to New York. Stuck in Harlem, living in a rat-infested tenement and unable to find work, Parks joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933. He married Sally Alvis in 1933 and returned to St. Paul in 1934, taking a job there as a dining-car waiter and porter on the North Coast Limited. The couple had three children, Gordon, Jr., Toni, and David.

Developed as Photographer

Parks became interested in photography while working on the railroad. He took his first pictures in Seattle, Washington, in 1937, at the end of his "run" from St. Paul. As Parks recalled for The Black Photographers Annual, "I bought my first camera in a pawn shop there. It was a Voigtlander Brilliant and cost $12.50. With such a brand name, I could not resist." He took his first pictures on Seattle's waterfront, even falling off the pier as he photographed sea gulls in flight. Upon his return to the Midwest, he dropped his film off at Eastman Kodak in Minneapolis. "The man at Kodak told me the shots were very good and if I kept it up, they would give me an exhibition. Later, Kodak gave me my first exhibition," Parks recalled.

Against all odds, Parks made a name for himself in St. Paul as a fashion photographer. When Marva Louis, the wife of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, saw his photographs on display in a fashionable store, she encouraged him to move to Chicago where she could steer more fashion work his way. Using the darkroom of Chicago's South Side Arts Center, a black community arts center, he supported his family through fashion photography while documenting life in the city's slums. His documentary photographs won him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1941, paying him $200 a month and offering him his choice of employer. In January 1942, he went to work in Washington, D.C., for Roy Emerson Stryker in the photography section of the Farm Security Administration, where he joined some of the finest documentary photographers in the country.

At a Glance …

Born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, KS; died on March 7, 2006, in New York, NY; son of Andrew Jackson and Sarah (Ross) Parks; married Sally Alvis in Washington, D.C., 1933 (divorced, 1961); married Elizabeth Campbell, 1962 (divorced, 1973); married Genevieve Young (an editor), 1973 (divorced, 1979); children (first marriage) Gordon, Jr. (died, 1979), Toni Parks Parson, David; (second marriage) Leslie.

Career : Freelance fashion photographer in St. Paul, MN, 1937–42; Farm Security Administration, photographer, 1942–43; Office of War Information, photojournalist war correspondent 1943; Standard Oil of New Jersey, photographer, 1944–48; Life magazine, photojournalist and photo-essayist, 1948–68; independent photographer and filmmaker, 1954–; numerous documentary and feature films; Essence, founder, 1970, editorial director 1970–73; author of novels, poetry and photography; creator, composer, and director.

Awards : Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, 1941; Notable Book Award, American Library Association for A Choice of Weapons, 1966; Emmy Award for documentary, Diary of a Harlem Family, 1968; Spingarn Award, 1972; Christopher Award for Flavio, 1978; National Medal of the Arts, 1988; Library of Congress National Film Registry Classics film honor for The Learning Tree, 1989; honorary Doctor of Letters, University of the District of Columbia, 1996; Library of Congress, Living Legend Award, 2000; induction into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, 2002; Jackie Robinson Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, 2002.

Parks took one of his most significant photographs on his first day in the nation's capital. He called it "American Gothic, Washington, D.C.," a portrait of Mrs. Ella Watson, a black woman who had mopped floors for the government all her life, posed with a mop and broom in front of an American flag. After a day of facing racial prejudice in restaurants and stores, Parks was angry when he took the photo. As the first black in the FSA, Parks did all he could to break down racial barriers, and he had the full support of his boss, Roy Stryker. While at the FSA, Parks took documentary photographs of everyday life. He spoke of his camera as if it were a weapon, "I had known poverty firsthand, but there I learned how to fight its evil—along with the evil of racism—with a camera."

After the FSA disbanded in 1943, Parks worked as a correspondent for the Office of War Information, where he taught himself about "writing to the point." One of his assignments was photographing the training of the first unit of black fighter pilots, the 332nd Fighter Group. Prohibited from accompanying them to Europe and documenting their participation in the war effort, Parks left in disgust and moved back to Harlem. In New York, he attempted to land a position with a major fashion magazine. The Hearst Organization, publisher of Harper's Bazaar, would not hire a black man. Impressed by Parks's experience, famed photographer Edward Steichen sent him to Alexander Liberman, director of Vogue magazine. Liberman put Parks in touch with the senior editor of Glamour magazine, and by the end of 1944 Parks's photographs appeared in both magazines. Parks's former boss, Roy Stryker, offered him a position with Standard Oil of New Jersey in 1944. Parks would stay there until he joined Life magazine as a photojournalist in 1948, shooting pictures of the company's executives and doing a notable documentary series for Standard Oil on life in America.

Worked at Life

Parks's first assignment for Life was one of his most significant, a profile of Harlem gang leader Red Jackson. It was an idea Parks himself suggested, and he stayed with the gangs for three months. His most famous photograph of Red Jackson is one in which the gang leader has a .45 pistol in his hand, waiting for a showdown with a rival gang. Parks would work at Life for two decades, until 1968, completing more than 300 assignments. When asked by The Black Photographers Annual to name his most important stories for Life, Parks listed the Harlem gang story, his first Paris fashion shoot in 1949, the Ingrid Bergman-Roberto Rosellini love affair on Stromboli, a cross-country U.S. crime series, an American poetry series that interpreted in photographs the works of leading U.S. poets, the Black Muslims and Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and Martin Luther King's death. By the early 1960s, Parks was writing his own essays to accompany his photographs in Life.

Parks provided the readers of Life magazine with a unique view of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. As Phil Kunhardt, Jr., assistant managing editor of Life, recalled for Deedee Moore, "At first he made his name with fashion, but when he covered racial strife for us, there was no question that he was a black photographer with enormous connections and access to the black community and its leaders." It was Malcolm X's trust of Parks that allowed him to do a feature on the Black Muslim leader. Malcolm X wrote of Parks in his autobiography, "Success among whites never made Parks lose touch with black reality."

Real life and photography were often closely intertwined in Parks's work, especially when subjects that touched his soul. "Those special problems spawned by poverty and crime touched me more, and I dug into them with more enthusiasm," he said, as quoted in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. "Working at them again revealed the superiority of the camera to explore the dilemmas they posed." He captured some of his most poignant photos in 1961 when he was on assignment in Brazil to document poverty there. He met a young, asthmatic boy named Flavio Da Silva who was dying in the hills above Rio de Janeiro. Parks's now-famous photo-essay on Flavio resulted in donations of thousands of dollars, enabling Parks to bring the boy to a clinic in the United States for treatment. Flavio was cured and returned to live outside of Rio; Parks and Flavio remained friends for life.

Displayed Talent in Film Industry

Parks began his cinematic career by writing and directing a documentary about Flavio in 1962. In 1968 he became the first black to produce and direct a film for a major studio, Warner Bros. Seven Arts. The film, The Learning Tree, was based on Parks's 1963 autobiographical novel and featured lush romanticism. Surprisingly, Parks also directed some highly commercial dramas, including Shaft (1971), Shaft's Big Score (1972), and The Super Cops (1974). As described by Donald Bogle in Blacks in American Films and Television, "Almost all his films [except The Super Cops] reveal his determination to deal with assertive, sexual black heroes, who struggle to maintain their manhood amid mounting social/political tensions…. In some respects, his films … can generally be read as heady manhood initiation rituals."

The commercial success of the Shaft films put MGM studios back on its feet financially after some difficult times, but Parks was not assured of a lasting place in Hollywood. Something of a maverick, Parks found himself in a dispute with Paramount Pictures over the distribution and promotion of his 1976 film, Lead-belly, which tells the story of the legendary folk and blues singer. Paramount's new management denied the film a New York opening, thus lessening its impact, and Parks felt the advertising campaign made the movie appear to be another "blaxploitation" film. Declining to do another Hollywood movie, Parks went on to film several documentaries for television and the Public Broadcasting System, including Solomon Northrup's Odyssey, The World of Piri Thomas, Diary of a Harlem Family, and Mean Streets.

Writing Proved Another Creative Outlet

The Learning Tree, Parks's autobiographical novel and subsequent film, was his first published work of fiction. The story is about a black family in a small Kansas town; it focuses on Newt Winger, the youngest son. As described in the Dictionary of Literary Biog-raphy, "On one level, it is the story of a particular Negro family who manages to maintain its dignity and self-respect as citizens and decent human beings in a border Southern town. On another, it is a symbolic tale of the black man's struggle against social, economic, and natural forces, sometimes winning, sometimes losing…. Because the family is portrayed as a normal American family whose blackness is a natural circumstance and therefore not a source of continual pain and degradation, the book contributes greatly to a positive view of black people."

Parks followed The Learning Tree with A Choice of Weapons. Published in 1966, it was the first of three autobiographical works he would write. The book detailed in a fairly straightforward manner the time of his life that was fictionalized in The Learning Tree, covering Parks's life from the time of his mother's death to 1944. It was a time that Parks has described as "a sentence in hell."

Parks's second volume of memoirs was published in 1979. To Smile in Autumn begins in 1944, when his first fashion photographs were appearing in Vogue and Glamour, and ends in 1978, when Parks had done just about everything he had set out to do. His creative output during that period was phenomenal. In addition to his work in film and television, Parks published several volumes of his own poetry with accompanying photographs. In 1972 the NAACP awarded him the prestigious Spingarn Medal following the publication in 1971 of Born Black, a collection of articles on notable African-Americans. By 1975 Parks was married to his third wife, editor Genevieve Young, and had a major retrospective showing 25 years of his photographs in New York. He lived in New York in a large apartment overlooking the East River near the United Nations building.

Regarded as Genius

But Parks was not about to retire. He had begun work on his autobiography, Voices in the Mirror, which explored the difficulties of his early years in Kansas, as well as the lasting impression his parents' love made on him. It was published in 1990. In 1988 he received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan, and his autobiographical film, Moments without Proper Names, aired on PBS. He completed the musical score and libretto for Martin, a ballet about Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1989 and began filming it for PBS, where it was shown on King's birthday in 1990. Grace Blake, the producer of Martin, had worked with Parks on some of his Hollywood films. She told the Smithsonian, "Gordon's vision of this whole project is so important to all of us…. There are not that many good projects being done about black people…. [Martin] is totally conceived by a black man who is an artist—who wrote the libretto, the music, directed the film, worked on the choreography, narrated, did his own fund raising. Absolutely, we know we are working with a genius."

In 1995 Parks donated his archives of films, photographs, writings, and other memorabilia to the Library of Congress. Parks said the donation was made because, as he told Jet, "I wanted it all stored under one roof and a roof that I could respect." In 1998 he published Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective. The book accompanied a traveling exhibit of his work organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Parks donated 227 pieces of artwork from the show to the Corcoran Gallery later in 1998.

In 2002 the 90-year-old Parks was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in Oklahoma City and received the Jackie Robinson Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. The power of Parks' cultural influence might best be seen in his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, which transformed over the years from being a source of racial strife and poverty in Parks' life to a champion of him as hometown hero, as witnessed by the opening of the Gordon Parks Center for Culture and Diversity at Fort Scott Community College in 2004. Parks donated his most renowned photograph, "American Gothic," and 30 others to the center, which continued to honor him with annual Gordon Parks Celebrations.

Parks died in his New York City apartment at the age of 93 on March 7, 2006. Hundreds of mourners attended his funeral, and special remembrances were held by his admirers around the country. Honored as a "living legend" by the Library of Congress when alive, Parks remained a legend after death. Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins captured Parks' essence in his eulogy, quoted by the Associated Press: "He was larger than life."

Selected writings

Flash Photography, New York, 1947.
Camera Portraits: The Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture, Franklin Watts, 1948.
The Learning Tree (novel), Harper & Row, 1963.
A Choice of Weapons (autobiography), Harper & Row, 1966.
A Poet and His Camera (poetry and photographs), Viking, 1968.
Gordon Parks: Whispers of Intimate Things (poetry and photographs), Viking, 1971.
Born Black (essays and photographs), Lippincott, 1971.
In Love (poetry and photographs), Lippincott, 1971.
Moments Without Proper Names (poetry and photographs), Viking, 1975.
Flavio, Norton, 1978.
To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir, Norton, 1979.
Shannon (novel), Little, Brown, 1981.
Voices in the Mirror (autobiography), Doubleday, 1990.
Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, Bulfinch: Little Brown, 1998.

Sources

Books

The Black Photographers Annual, Volume 4, edited by Joe Crawford, Another View, 1980.

Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Films and Television: An Encyclopedia, Garland, 1988.

Gordon Parks, Chelsea House, 1990.

Periodicals

Afterimage, March 2002.

American Visions, December 1989.

Associated Press, March 15, 2006.

Atlanta Daily World, March 30, 2006.

Black Enterprise, January 1992.

Detroit Free Press, January 9, 1991.

Jet, July 31, 1995; September 23, 1996; October 6, 1997; January 19, 1998; October 19, 1998; April 8, 2002.

Library Journal, February 1, 1998.

Modern Maturity, June-July 1989.

New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1990.

Smithsonian, April 1989.

USA Today (Magazine), September 1998.

Worcester Telegram and Gazette (MA), March 9, 2006, p. C2.

On-line

"Living Legends: Gordon Parks," Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/about/awards/legends/bio/parks.html (November 3, 2006).

"Multitalented Artist Gordon Parks Dies at 93," National Public Radio, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5250990 (November 3, 2006).

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Parks, Gordon 1912–

Gordon Parks 1912

Photographer, film director, novelist, composer

At a Glance

His Early Interest in Photography

Began Career at Life Magazine

Embarked On Cinematic Sojourn

Awarded Springarn Medal

Selected writings

Sources

In 2002, at the age of 90, Gordon Parks received the Jackie Robinson Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum. These honors were only the two latest tributes bestowed on a man whose achievements in photography, literature, film, and ballet have earned him more than twenty doctorates and numerous awards. When asked why he undertook so many professions, Parks told Black Enterprise At first I wasnt sure that I had the talent, but I did know fear of failure, and that fear compelled me to fight off anything that might abet it. I suffered evils, but without allowing them to rob me of the freedom to expand.

Driven by this determination to drive failure from my dreams and to push on, Parks became the first black photographer to work at magazines like Life and Vogue, and the first black to work for the Office of War Information and the Farm Security Administration. Parks achieved these milestones in the 1940s. Later, in the 1960s, he helped break racial barriers in Hollywood as the first black director for a major studio. He co-produced, directed, wrote the screenplay, and composed the musical score for the film based on his 1963 novel, The Learning Tree. The film was later placed on the National Film Register by the Library of Congress.

The youngest of fifteen children, Gordon Parks was born into the devout Methodist family of Sarah Ross Parks and Andrew Jackson Parks in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas. It was a town electrified with racial tension, Parks remembered. The family was dirt-poor, but the children were taught to value honor, education, and equality, as well as the importance of telling the truth. The security that Parks derived from the quiet strength of his father and his mothers love was shattered when she died during his fifteenth year. As he recalled in Voices in the Mirror, he spent the night alone with her coffin, an experience he found both terror-filled and strangely reassuring.

After his mothers death, Parks was sent to live with a sister and her husband in St. Paul, Minnesota. His high school education was cut short when, after an argument, his sisters husband threw him out of the house just before Christmas one year. Suddenly and unexpectedly on his own, Parks was forced to take a variety of temporary jobs that included playing piano in a brothel and mopping floors. As a busboy at the Hotel

At a Glance

Born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, KS; son of Andrew Jackson and Sarah (Ross) Parks; married Sally Alvis in Washington, D.C., 1933 (divorced, 1961); married Elizabeth Campbell, 1962 (divorced, 1973); married Genevieve Young (an editor), 1973 (divorced, 1979); children (first marriage) Gordon, Jr. (died, 1979), Toni Parks Parson, David; (second marriage) Leslie.

Career: Free-lance fashion photographer in St. Paul, MN, 1937-42; Farm Security Administration, photographer, 1942-43; Office of War Information, photojournalist war correspondent 1943; Standard Oil of New Jersey, photographer, 1944-48; Life magazine, photo-journalist and photoessayist, 1948-68; independent photographer and filmmaker, 1954-; numerous documentary and feature films; Essence, founder, 1970, editorial director 1970-73; author of novels, poetry and photography; creator, composer, and director.

Awards: Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, 1941; Notable Book Award, American Library Association for A Choice of Weapons, 1966; Emmy Award for documentary, Diary of a Harlem Family, 1968; Spingarn Award, 1972; Christopher Award for Flavio, 1978; National Medal of the Arts, 1988; Library of Congress National Film Registry Classics film honor for The Learning Tree, 1989; honorary Doctor of Letters, University of the District of Columbia, 1996; induction into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, 2002; Jackie Robinson Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, 2002.

Addresses: Home 860 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017.

owry in St. Paul, he played his own songs on the piano there and joined a band that was on tour after the leader heard him play.

Unfortunately, the band broke up when they returned to New York. Stuck in Harlem, living in a rat-infested tenement and unable to find work, Parks joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933. He married Sally Alvis in 1933 and returned to St. Paul in 1934, taking a job there as a dining car waiter and porter on the North Coast Limited. The couple had three children, Gordon, Jr., Toni, and David.

His Early Interest in Photography

Parks became interested in photography while working on the railroad. He took his first pictures in Seattle, Washington, in 1937, at the end of his run from St. Paul. As Parks recalled for The Black Photographers Annual, I bought my first camera in a pawn shop there. It was a Voigtlander Brilliant and cost $12.50. With such a brand name, I could not resist. He took his first pictures on Seattles waterfront, even falling off the pier as he photographed sea gulls in flight. Upon his return to the Midwest, he dropped his film off at Eastman Kodak in Minneapolis. The man at Kodak told me the shots were very good and if I kept it up, they would give me an exhibition. Later, Kodak gave me my first exhibition, Parks recalled.

Against all odds, Parks made a name for himself in St. Paul as a fashion photographer. When Marva Louis, the wife of heavy-weight champion, Joe Louis, saw his photographs on display in a fashionable store, she encouraged him to move to Chicago where she could steer more fashion work his way. Using the darkroom of Chicagos South Side Arts Center, a black community arts center, he supported his family through fashion photography while documenting life in the citys slums. His documentary photographs won him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1941, paying him $200 a month and offering him his choice of employer. In January 1942, he went to work in Washington, D.C., for Roy Emerson Stryker in the photography section of the Farm Security Administration, where he joined some of the finest documentary photographers in the country.

Parks took one of his most significant photographs on his first day in the nations capital. He called it American Gothic, Washington, D.C., a portrait of Mrs. Ella Watson, a black woman who had mopped floors for the government all her life, posed with a mop and broom in front of an American flag. After a day of facing racial prejudice in restaurants and stores, Parks was angry when he took the photo. As the first black in the FSA, Parks did all he could to break down racial barriers, and he had the full support of his boss, Roy Stryker. While at the FSA, Parks took documentary photographs of everyday life. He spoke of his camera as if it were a weapon, I had known poverty firsthand, but there I learned how to fight its evilalong with the evil of racismwith a camera.

After the FSA disbanded in 1943, Parks worked as a correspondent for the Office of War Information, where he taught himself about writing to the point. One of his assignments was photographing the training of the first unit of black fighter pilots, the 332nd Fighter Group. Prohibited from accompanying them to Europe and documenting their participation in the war effort, Parks left in disgust and moved back to Harlem. In New York, he attempted to land a position with a major fashion magazine. The Hearst Organization, publisher of Harpers Bazaar, would not hire a black man. Impressed by Parkss experience, famed photographer Edward Steichen sent him to Alexander Liberman, director of Vogue magazine. Liberman put Parks in touch with the senior editor of Glamour magazine, and by the end of 1944 Parkss photographs appeared in both magazines. Parkss former boss, Roy Stryker, offered him a position with Standard Oil of New Jersey in 1944. Parks would stay there until he joined Life magazine as a photojournalist in 1948, shooting pictures of the companys executives and doing a notable documentary series for Standard Oil on life in America.

Began Career at Life Magazine

Parkss first assignment for Life was one of his most significant, a profile of Harlem gang leader Red Jackson. It was an idea Parks himself suggested, and he stayed with the gangs for three months. His most famous photograph of Red Jackson is one in which the gang leader has a.45 pistol in his hand, waiting for a showdown with a rival gang. Parks would work at Life for nearly a quarter of a century, until 1972, completing more than 300 assignments. When asked by The Black Photographers Annual to name his most important stories for Life, Parks listed the Harlem gang story, his first Paris fashion shoot in 1949, the Ingrid Bergman-Roberto Rosellini love affair on Stromboli, a cross-country U.S. crime series, an American poetry series that interpreted in photographs the works of leading U.S. poets, the Black Muslims and Malcolm X. the Black Panthers, and Martin Luther Kings death. By the early 1960s, Parks was writing his own essays to accompany his photographs in Life.

Parks provided the readers of Life magazine with a unique view of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. As Phil Kunhardt, Jr., assistant managing editor of Life, recalled for Deedee Moore, At first he made his name with fashion, but when he covered racial strife for us, there was no question that he was a black photographer with enormous connections and access to the black community and its leaders. It was Malcolm Xs trust of Parks that allowed him to do a feature on the Black Muslim leader. Malcolm X wrote of Parks in his autobiography, Success among whites never made Parks lose touch with black reality.

Real life and photography were often closely intertwined in Parkss work. In 1961 he was on assignment in Brazil to document poverty there. He met a young, asthmatic boy named Flavio Da Silva who was dying in the hills above Rio de Janeiro. Parkss now-famous photo-essay on Flavio resulted in donations of thousands of dollars, enabling Parks to bring the boy to a clinic in the United States for treatment. Flavio was cured and lives today outside of Rio; Parks and Flavio have remained friends.

Embarked On Cinematic Sojourn

Parks began his cinematic career by writing and directing a documentary about Flavio in 1962. In 1968 he became the first black to produce and direct a film for a major studio, Warner Bros. Seven Arts. The film, The Learning Tree, was based on Parkss 1963 autobiographical novel and featured lush romanticism. Surprisingly, Parks also directed some highly commercial dramas, including Shaft (1971), Shafts Big Score (1972), and The Super Cops (1974). As described by Donald Bogle in Blacks in American Films and Television, Almost all his films [except The Super Cops] reveal his determination to deal with assertive, sexual black heroes, who struggle to maintain their manhood amid mounting social/political tensions. In some respects, his films can generally be read as heady manhood initiation rituals.

The commercial success of the Shaft films put MGM studios back on its feet financially after some difficult times, but Parks was not assured of a lasting place in Hollywood. Something of a maverick, Parks found himself in a dispute with Paramount Pictures over the distribution and promotion of his 1976 film, Lead-belly, which tells the story of the legendary folk and blues singer. Paramounts new management denied the film a New York opening, thus lessening its impact, and Parks felt the advertising campaign made the movie appear to be another blaxploitation film. Declining to do another Hollywood movie, Parks went on to film several documentaries for television and the Public Broadcasting System, including Solomon Northrups Odyssey, The World of Piri Thomas, Diary of a Harlem Family, and Mean Streets.

The Learning Tree, Parkss autobiographical novel and subsequent film, was his first published work of fiction. The story is about a black family in a small Kansas town; it focuses on Newt Winger, the youngest son. As described in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, On one level, it is the story of a particular Negro family who manages to maintain its dignity and self-respect as citizens and decent human beings in a border Southern town. On another, it is a symbolic tale of the black mans struggle against social, economic, and natural forces, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. Because the family is portrayed as a normal American family whose blackness is a natural circumstance and therefore not a source of continual pain and degradation, the book contributes greatly to a positive view of black people.

Parks followed The Learning Tree with A Choice of Weapons. Published in 1966, it was the first of three autobiographical works he would write. The book detailed in a fairly straightforward manner the time of his life that was fictionalized in The Learning Tree, covering Parkss life from the time of his mothers death to 1944. It was a time that Parks has described as a sentence in hell.

Awarded Springarn Medal

Parkss second volume of memoirs was published in 1979. To Smile in Autumn begins in 1944, when his first fashion photographs were appearing in Vogue and Glamour, and ends in 1978, when Parks had done just about everything he had set out to do. His creative output during that period was phenomenal. In addition to his work in film and television, Parks published several volumes of his own poetry with accompanying photographs. In 1972 the NAACP awarded him the prestigious Spingarn Medal following the publication in 1971 of Born Black, a collection of articles on notable African-Americans. By 1975 Parks was married to his third wife, editor Genevieve Young, and had a major retrospective showing twenty-five years of his photographs in New York. He lived in New York in a large apartment overlooking the East River near the United Nations building.

As Voices in the Mirror attests, though, Parks was not about to retire. In 1988 he received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan, and his autobiographical film, Moments without Proper Names, aired on PBS. He completed the musical score and libretto for Martin, a ballet about Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1989 and began filming it for PBS, where it was shown on Kings birthday in 1990. Grace Blake, the producer of Martin, had worked with Parks on some of his Hollywood films. She told the Smithsonian, Gordons vision of this whole project is so important to all of us. There are not that many good projects being done about black people. [Martin] is totally conceived by a black man who is an artistwho wrote the libretto, the music, directed the film, worked on the choreography, narrated, did his own fund raising. Absolutely, we know we are working with a genius.

In 1995 Parks donated his archives of films, photographs, writings, and other memorabilia to the Library of Congress. Parks said the donation was made because, as he told Jet, I wanted it all stored under one roof and a roof that I could respect. In 1998 he published Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective. The book accompanied a traveling exhibit of his work organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Parks donated 227 pieces of artwork from the show to the Corcoran Gallery later in 1998.

In 2002 the 90-year-old Parks was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in Oklahoma City and received the Jackie Robinson Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. Although he was no longer as active as he once was, his body of work is still being recognized as an amazing contribution to American culture.

Selected writings

Flash Photography, New York, 1947.

Camera Portraits: The Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture, Franklin Watts, 1948.

The Learning Tree (novel), Harper & Row, 1963.

A Choice of Weapons (autobiography), Harper & Row, 1966.

A Poet and His Camera (poetry and photographs), Viking, 1968.

Gordon Parks: Whispers of Intimate Things (poetry and photographs), Viking, 1971.

Born Black (essays and photographs), Lippincott, 1971.

In Love (poetry and photographs), Lippincott, 1971.

Moments Without Proper Names (poetry and photographs), Viking, 1975.

Flavio, Norton, 1978.

To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir, Norton, 1979.

Shannon (novel), Little, Brown, 1981.

Voices in the Mirror (autobiography), Doubleday, 1990.

Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, Bulfinch: Little Brown, 1998.

Sources

Books

The Black Photographers Annual, Volume 4, edited by Joe Crawford, Another View, 1980.

Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Films and Television: An Encyclopedia, Garland, 1988.

Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Volume 26, Gale Research.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33, Gale Research.

Gordon Parks, Chelsea House, 1990.

Periodicals

Afterimage, March 2002.

American Visions, December 1989.

Black Enterprise, January 1992.

Detroit Free Press, January 9, 1991.

Jet, July 31, 1995; September 23, 1996; October 6, 1997; January 19, 1998; October 19, 1998; April 8, 2002.

Library Journal, February 1, 1998.

Modern Maturity, June-July 1989.

New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1990.

Smithsonian, April 1989.

USA Today (Magazine), September 1998.

David Bianco and Pat Donaldson

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Parks, Gordon 1912—

Gordon Parks 1912

Photographer, film director, author

At a Glance

Began Career in Photography

Joined Staff of Life Magazine

Began Film Career

Selected writings

Sources

In 1990, at the age of 78, Gordon Parks published his third autobiographical work, Voices in the Mirror. The book reveals the personal side of a man whose achievements in photography, literature, film, and ballet have won him more than twenty honorary doctorates and numerous awards. Reviewing the book in the New York Times Book Review, Michael Dyson wrote, Mr. Parks records with unsparing candor the material deprivations, psychic thrashings and moral agonies wrought by his initiation into maturity. It is amazing that he never allowed the ubiquity of racial animosity to obstruct his exploration of the mystery of life or wither his reverence for imagination and experience.

Driven by self-proclaimed determination to drive failure from my dreams and to push Parks became the first black photographer to work at magazines like Life and Vogue, and the first black to work for the Office of War Information and the Farm Security Administration. Parks achieved these milestones in the 1940s. Later, in the 1960s, he helped break racial barriers in Hollywood as the first black director for a major studio. He co-produced, directed, wrote the screenplay, and composed the musical score for the film based on his 1963 novel, The Learning Tree. The film was later placed on the National Film Register by the Library of Congress.

The youngest of fifteen children, Gordon Parks was born into the devout Methodist family of Sarah Ross Parks and Andrew Jackson Parks in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas. It was a town electrified with racial tension, Parks remembered. The family was dirt-poor, but the children were taught to value honor, education, and equality, as well as the importance of telling the truth. The security that Parks derived from the quiet strength of his father and his mothers love was shattered when she died during his fifteenth year. As he recalled in Voices in the Mirror, he spent the night alone with her coffin, an experience he found both terror-filled and strangely reassuring.

After his mothers death, Parks was sent to live with a sister and her husband in St. Paul, Minnesota. His high school education was cut short when his sisters husband threw him out of the house just before Christmas one year. Suddenly and unexpectedly on his own, Parks was forced to take a variety of temporary jobs that included playing piano in a brothel and mopping floors. As a

At a Glance

Full name, Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks; 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, 1962 (divorced, 1973); married Genevieve Young (an editor), August 26, 1973 (divorced, 1979); children: (first marriage) Gordon, Jr. (a filmmaker; deceased), Toni Parks Parson, David; (second marriage) Leslie.

Free-lance fashion photographer in St. Paul, MN, 1937-42; U.S. Farm Security Administration, Washington, D.C., photographer, 1942-43; U.S. Office of War Information, photojournalist war correspondent, 1943; Standard Oil of New Jersey, photographer, 1944-48; Life magazine, photojournalist and photoessayist, 1948-68

Independent photographer and filmmaker, 1954. Maker of numerous documentary films, including Diary of a Harlem Family and Mean Family and Mean Streets, and of feature films, including Shaft, 1971, Shafts Big Score, 1972, and The super Cops, 1974 Essence magazine, founder, 1970, editorial director , 1970-73 ballet 1970-73. Composer and director of bal let Martin. Composer of Piano Concerto, 1953, Tree Symphony, 1967, and piano sonatas and modern works for piano and wind instruments, and film scores, including The Learning Tree and Shafts Big Score.

Awards; Recipient of numerous civil and professional awards, including the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, 1941; Notable Book Award Book Award from the American Library Association, 1966, for A Choice of Weapons ; Emmy Award for documentary 1968, for Diary of a Harlem Family; Spingarn Award 1972 Christopher Award, 1978, for Flavio; National Medal of the Arts, 1988; and Library of Congress National Film Registry Classics film honor, 1989, for The Learning Tree.

Addresses: Home 860 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017.

busboy at the Hotel Lowry in St. Paul, he played his own songs on the piano there and joined a band that was on tour after the leader heard him play.

Unfortunately, the band broke up when they returned to New York. Stuck in Harlem, living in a rat-infested room and unable to find work, Parks joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933. He married Sally Alvis in 1933 and returned to St. Paul in 1934, taking a job there as a dining car waiter and porter on the North Coast Limited. They had three children, Gordon, Jr., Toni, and David.

Began Career in Photography

Parks became interested in photography while working on the railroad. He took his first pictures in Seattle, Washington, in 1937, at the end of his run from St. Paul. As Parks recalled for The Black Photographers Annual, I bought my first camera in a pawn shop there. It was a Voigtlander Brilliant and cost $12.50. With such a brand name, I could not resist. He took his first pictures on Seattles waterfront, even falling off the pier as he photographed sea gulls in flight. Upon his return to the Midwest, he dropped his film off at Eastman Kodak in Minneapolis. The man at Kodak told me the shots were very good and if I kept it up, they would give me an exhibition. Later, Kodak gave me my first exhibition, Parks recalled.

Against all odds, Parks made a name for himself in St. Paul as a fashion photographer. Heavyweight boxing chamption Joe Louiss wife, Marva, saw his photographs on display in a fashionable store and encouraged him to move to Chicago, where she could steer more fashion work his way. Using the darkroom of Chicagos South Side Arts Center, a black community arts center, he supported his family through fashion photography while documenting life in the citys slums. His documentary photographs won him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1941, paying him $200 a month and offering him his choice of employer. In January 1942, he went to work in Washington, D.C., for Roy Emerson Stryker in the photography section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), where he joined some of the finest documentary photographers in the country.

Parks took one of his most significant photographs on his first day in the nations capital. He called it American Gothic, Washington, D.C., a portrait of Mrs. Ella Watson, a black woman who had mopped floors for the government all her life, posed with a mop and broom in front of an American flag. Parks was angry when he took the photo, having spent the entire day battling racial prejudice in restaurants and stores. As the first black in the FSA, Parks did all he could to break down racial barriers, and he had the full support of his boss, Roy Stryker. While at the FSA, Parks took documentary photographs of everyday life. He spoke of his camera as if it were a weapon, I had known poverty firsthand, but there I learned how to fight its evilalong with the evil of racismwith a camera.

After the FSA disbanded in 1943, Parks worked as a war correspondent for the Office of War Information, where he taught himself about writing to the point. Prohibited from covering the missions of an all-black fighter pilot squadron, Parks left in disgust and moved back to Harlem. In New York, he attempted to land a position with a major fashion magazine. The Hearst Organization, publisher of Harpers Bazaar, would not hire a black man. Shocked at Parkss experience, famed photographer Edward Steichen sent him to Alexander Liberman, director of Vogue magazine. Liberman put Parks in touch with the senior editor of Glamour magazine, and by the end of 1944 Parkss photographs appeared in both publications.

Joined Staff of Life Magazine

Parkss former boss, Roy Stryker, offered him a position with Standard Oil of New Jersey in 1944. Parks would stay there until he joined Life magazine as a photojoumalist in 1948, shooting pictures of the companys executives and doing a notable documentary series for Standard Oil on life in America. Parkss first assignment for Life was one of his most significant, a profile of Harlem gang leader Red Jackson. It was an idea Parks himself suggested, and he stayed with the gangs for three months. His most famous photograph of Red Jackson is one in which the gang leader has a .45 pistol in his hand, waiting for a showdown with a rival gang.

Parks would work at Life for nearly a quarter of a century, until 1972, completing more than 300 assignments. When asked by The Black Photographers Annual to name his most important stories for Life, Parks listed the Harlem gang story, his first Paris fashion shoot in 1949, the Ingrid Bergman-Roberto Rosellini love affair on Stromboli, a cross-country U.S. crime series, an American poetry series that interpreted in photographs the works of leading U.S. poets, the Black Muslims and Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and Martin Luther Kings death. By the early 1960s, Parks was writing his own essays to accompany his photographs in Life.

Parks provided the readers of Life magazine with a unique view of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. As Phil Kunhardt, Jr., assistant managing editor of Life, recalled for Deedee Moore, At first he made his name with fashion, but when he covered racial strife for us, there was no question that he was a black photographer with enormous connections and access to the black community and its leaders. It was Malcolm Xs trust of Parks that allowed him to do a feature on the Black Muslim leader. Malcolm X wrote of Parks in his autobiography, Success among whites never made Parks lose touch with black reality.

Real life and photography were often closely intertwined in Parkss work. In 1961, he was on assignment in Brazil to document poverty there. He met a young, asthmatic boy named Flavio who was dying in the hills above Rio de Janeiro. Parkss now-famous photoessay on Flavio resulted in donations of thousands of dollars, enabling Parks to bring the boy to a clinic in the United States for treatment. Flavio was cured and lives today outside of Rio; Parks and Flavio have remained friends.

Began Film Career

Parks began his cinematic career by writing and directing a documentary about Flavio in 1962. In 1968, he became the first black to produce and direct a film for a major studio, Warner Bros. Seven Arts. The film, The Learning Tree, was based on Parkss 1963 autobiographical novel and featured lush romanticism. Surprisingly, Parks also directed some highly commercial dramas for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), including Shaft (1971), Shafts Big Score (1972), and The Super Cops (1974). As described by Donald Bogle in Blacks in American Films and Television Almost all his films [except The Super Cops] reveal his determination to deal with assertive, sexual black heroes, who struggle to maintain their manhood amid mounting social/political tensions. In some respects, his films can generally be read as heady manhood initiation rituals.

The commercial success of the Shaft films put MGM studios back on its feet financially after some difficult times, but Parks was not assured of a lasting place in Hollywood. Something of a maverick, Parks found himself in a dispute with Paramount Pictures over the distribution and promotion of his 1976 film, Leadbelly, which tells the story of the legendary folk and blues singer Huddie Ledbetter. Paramounts new management denied the film a New York opening, thus lessening its impact, and Parks felt the advertising campaign made the movie appear to be another blaxploitation film. Declining to do another Hollywood movie, Parks went on to film several documentaries for television and the Public Broadcasting System, including Solomon Northrups Odyssey, The World of Piri Thomas, Diary of a Harlem Family, and Mean Streets.

The Learning Tree, Parkss autobiographical novel and subsequent film, was his first published work of fiction. The story is about a black family in a small Kansas town; it focuses on Newt Winger, the youngest son. As described in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, On one level, it is the story of a particular Negro family who manages to maintain its dignity and self-respect as citizens and decent human beings in a border Southern town. On another, it is a symbolic tale of the black mans struggle against social, economic, and natural forces, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. Because the family is portrayed as a normal American family whose blackness is a natural circumstance and therefore not a source of continual pain and degradation, the book contributes greatly to a positive view of black people.

Parks followed The Learning Tree with A Choice of Weapons. Published in 1966, it was the first of three autobiographical works he would write. The book details in a fairly straightforward manner the time of his life that was fictionalized in The Learning Tree, covering Parkss life from the time of his mothers death to 1944. It was a time that Parks has described as a sentence in hell.

Parkss second volume of memoirs was published in 1979. To Smile in Autumn begins in 1944, when his first fashion photographs were appearing in Vogue and Glamour, and ends in 1978, when Parks had done just about everything he had set out to do. His creative output during that period was phenomenal. In addition to his work in film and television, Parks published several volumes of his own poetry with accompanying photographs. In 1972, the NAACP awarded him the prestigious Spingarn Medal following the publication in 1971 of Born Black, a collection of articles on notable African-Americans. By 1975, Parks was married to his third wife, editor Genevieve Young, and had a major retrospective showing twenty-five years of his photographs in New York. He lived in New York in a large apartment overlooking the East River near the United Nations building.

As Voices in the Mirror attests, though, Parks was not about to retire. In 1988, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan, and his autobiographical film, Moments without Proper Names, aired on PBS. He completed the musical score and libretto for Martin, a ballet about Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1989 and began filming it for PBS, where it was shown on Kings birthday in 1990. Grace Blake, the producer of Martin, had worked with Parks on some of his Hollywood films. She told writer Deedee Moore, Gordons vision of this whole project is so important to all of us. There are not that many good projects being done about black people. [Martin] is totally conceived by a black man who is an artistwho wrote the libretto, the music, directed the film, worked on the choreography, narrated, did his own fund raising. Absolutely, we know we are working with a genius.

At age 78, Parks plans to publish another book of photographs, compose sonatas for each of his four children, and finish Celebrations, a collection of musical compositions in honor of his mother and father.

Selected writings

Flash Photography, [New York], 1947.

Camera Portraits: The Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture, Franklin Watts, 1948.

The Learning Tree (novel), Harper & Row, 1963.

A Choice of Weapons (autobiography), Harper & Row, 1966.

A Poet and His Camera (poetry and photographs), Viking, 1968.

Gordon Parks: Whispers of Intimate Things (poetry and photographs), Viking, 1971.

Born Black (essays and photographs), Lippincott, 1971.

In Love (poetry and photographs), Lippincott, 1971.

Moments without Proper Names (poetry and photographs), Viking, 1975.

Flavio, Norton, 1978.

To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir, Norton, 1979.

Shannon (novel), Little, Brown, 1981.

Voices in the Mirror (autobiography), Doubleday, 1990.

Sources

Books

The Black Photographers Annual, Volume 4, edited by Joe Crawford, Another View, 1980.

Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Films and Television: An Encyclopedia, Garland, 1988.

Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Volume 26, Gale, 1989.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33, Gale, 1984.

Gordon Parks, Chelsea House, 1990.

Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Grove, 1965.

Periodicals

American Visions, December 1989.

Detroit Free Press, January 9, 1991.

Modern Maturity, June-July 1989.

New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1990.

Smithsonian, April 1989.

David Bianco

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Parks, Gordon

PARKS, Gordon



Nationality: American. Born: Fort Scott, Kansas, 30 November 1912. Education: Attended high school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Family: Married 1) Sally Alvis, 1933 (divorced 1961); 2) Elizabeth Campbell, December, 1962 (divorced 1973); 3) Genevieve Young (a book editor), August 26, 1973; children: (first marriage) Gordon, Jr. (deceased), Toni (Mrs. Jean-Luc Brouillaud), David; (second marriage) Leslie. Career: Worked at various jobs prior to 1937; freelance fashion photographer in Minneapolis, 1937–42; photographer with Farm Security Administration, 1942–43, with Office of War Information, 1944, and with Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, 1945–48; Life (magazine), New York City, photo-journalist, 1948–72; Essence (magazine), New York City, editorial director, 1970–73. President of Winger Corp. Film director, 1968—, director of motion pictures for Warner Brothers-Seven Arts, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), and Paramount Pictures. Composer of concertos and sonatas performed by symphony orchestras in the United States and Europe. Also author of Martin, a ballet, 1990, and of several television documentaries produced by National Educational Television, including Flavio and Mean Streets. Contributor to Show, Vogue, Venture, and other periodicals. Awards: Rosenwald Foundation fellow, 1942; once chosen 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; named photographer-writer who had done the most to promote understanding among nations of the world in an international vote conducted by the makers of Nikon photographic equipment, 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; 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, Rocheseter Institute of Technology, 1989, Parsons School of Design, 1991, Manhattanville College, 1992, College of New Rochelle, 1992, Skidmore College, 1993, 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. Agent: Ben Benjamin, Creative Management Associates, 9255 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90069, U.S.A.


Films as Director:

1969

The Learning Tree (+ mus, pr, sc)

1971

Shaft

1972

Shaft's Big Score! (+ mus)

1974

The Super Cops

1976

Leadbelly

1984

Solomon Northrup's Odyssey(Half-Slave,Half-Free)(—for TV)

Films as Actor:

1992

Lincoln (Kunhardt—for TV) (voice of Henry H. Garnet)

2000

Shaft (Singleton) (as Lenox Lounge Patron)

Publications


By PARKS: books—

Flash Photography, New York, 1947.

Camera Portraits: The Techniques and Principles of DocumentaryPortraiture, New York, 1948.

The Learning Tree, New York, 1963.

A Choice of Weapons (autobiography), New York, 1966.

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

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

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

In Love (poems), self-illustrated with photographs, New York, 1971.

Moments without Proper Names (poems), self-illustrated with

photographs, New York, 1975.

Flavio, New York, 1978.

To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir, New York, 1979.

Shannon (novel), Boston, 1981.

Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography, New York, 1990.

Author of foreword, Harlem: Photographs by Aaron Siskind,1932–1940, edited by Ann Banks, Washington D.C., 1991.

Author of introduction, Soul Unsold, by Mandy Vahabzadeh, Marina del Rey, California, 1992.

Author of introduction, A Ming Breakfast: Grits and ScrambledMoments, New York, 1992.

Arias in Silence, Boston, 1994.

Contributor, In the Alleys: Kids in the Shadow of the Capitol, Washington D.C., 1995.

Glimpses toward Infinity, Boston, 1996.

Contributor, Spirited Minds, Minneapolis, 1996.

A Star for Noon, Boston, 2000.

Contributor, Autobiography of a People: Three Centuries of African-American History Told by Those Who Lived It, edited by Herb Boyd, New York, 2000.


On PARKS: books—

Rolansky, John D., editor, Creativity, New York, 1970.

Turk, Midge, Gordon Parks, New York, 1971.

Harnan, Terry, Gordon Parks: Black Photographer and Film Maker, London, 1972.

Monaco, James, American Film Now: The People, the Power, theMoney, the Movies, New York,1979.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33: Afro-American FictionWriters after 1955, Detroit, 1984.

Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: A History of Blacks in American Films from Birth of a Nation toMalcolm X, New York, 1994.

Parks, Gordon, Jr. Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, Boston, 1998.

Martinzez, Gerald, Diana Martinzez, and Andres Chavez, What It Is,What It Was!, New York, 1998.


On PARKS: articles—

America, 24 July 1971.

American Photo, September-October 1991.

American Visions, December 1989, February 1991, and February-March 1993.

Best Sellers, 1 April 1971.

Black Enterprise, January 1992.

Black World, August 1973.

Commonweal, 5 September 1969.

Cue, 9 August 1969.

Ebony, July 1946.

Films and Filming, April 1972 and October 1972.

Films in Review, October 1972.

Focus on Film, October 1971.

Journal of American History, December 1987.

Life, October 1994 and February 1996.

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

New Yorker, 2 November 1963 and 13 February 1966.

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

New York Times Book Review, 15 September 1963, 13 February 1966, 23 December 1979, 9 December 1990, and 1 March 1996.

Point of View, Winter 1998.

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

San Jose Mercury News, 23 February 1990.

Saturday Review, 12 February 1966 and 9 August 1969.

Show Business, 2 August 1969.

Smithsonian, April 1989.

Time, 6 September 1963, 29 September 1969, 24 May 1976, and 26 June 2000.

Variety, 6 November 1968 and 25 June 1969.

Vogue, 1 October 1968 and January 1976.

Washington Post, 20 October 1978 and 24 January 1980.


* * *

Already an award-winning photographer and novelist, Gordon Parks beat out Melvin Van Peebles by a few months to become, in 1969, the first African American hired to direct a major studio production. Parks had his Kansas-set The Learning Tree under way at Warner Bros. when Van Peebles was tapped to do the satire Watermelon Man for Columbia Pictures. As the trajectory of both men's careers would later make clear, Parks' historic role had more to do with versatility and fortitude than timing or blind luck. One need only compare the directors' follow-up projects—Parks went on to do the trend-setting Shaft for MGM; Van Peebles made the incendiary, X-rated Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song—to understand why Hollywood was more comfortable casting Parks as civil rights standard bearer. Professorial in demeanor (with ever-present pipe, ascot, and natty sports jacket), Parks, one could argue, was less threatening to a power structure more interested in salving its conscience and tapping into a new urban market than in advancing the cause of blacks in Hollywood.

Was Parks then establishment Hollywood's token black director, a "sell-out," in the parlance of the day? This has been a subject of some debate by, among others, Van Peebles (who charges yes) and Parks (who resents the implication, pointing to the large number of blacks employed on his films). To answer in the affirmative is in no way to diminish Parks importance to the erratic, snail-paced integration of the studio system. Someone had to be first, and that role fell to Parks more as an outgrowth of his deep-rooted humanism than as a result of any filmmaking skills. Indeed, Parks learned as he went on the set of The Learning Tree. The son of a Fort Scott, Kansas, sharecropper, Parks, the youngest of 15 children, bounced among menial jobs until, at age 25, he found his niche: still photography. He would go on to break color barriers in the worlds of fashion photography and photo-journalism, first with Vogue and then with Life magazine. Among Parks' most famous portraitures were studies of Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and Ingrid Bergman. As photojournalist, he chronicled the lives of a Harlem gang member, a Washington, D.C., cleaning woman named Ella Watson, and a Brazilian street orphan named Flavio. The Life studies—bracing, accusatory, always empathetic—brought accolades and retrospectives. In 1963, Parks added an autobiographical novel to his already-standard works on portrait and documentary photography. The Learning Tree, set in Cherokee Flats, Kansas, in the 1920s, is at once nostalgic, heartbreaking, and richly layered. The protagonist, a 12-year-old named Newt, comes of age as he witnesses acts of violence and betrayal from both blacks and whites. Newt's mother offers a metaphoric lesson: "Some of the people are good and some of them are bad—just like the fruit on a tree . . . No matter if you go or stay, think of Cherokee Flats like that till the day you die—let it be your learnin' tree."

Likened to stories of Faulkner and Steinbeck, and quickly added to required reading lists, The Learning Tree was immediately sought by Hollywood. Taking a page from silent-movie pioneer Oscar Micheaux, who produced and directed movies from his own books, Parks said he would only option the novel with himself attached as producer, director, screenwriter, and composer. In 1968, Warner Bros. agreed, and Parks, at age 56, returned to Fort Scott, Kansas, to shoot his first film, an at-times jarring blend of soft-focus sentimentality and bitter life lessons. Generally dismissed by critics expecting a harsher indictment of the System, The Learning Tree (1969) found vindication in 1989, when it become, along with Citizen Kane and Casablanca, one of the first "landmark" films selected by the Library of Congress's National Film Registry.

Shaft (1971), Parks' second feature, could not have been more of a departure. It starred Richard Roundtree as a Greenwich Village private eye—"the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about"—who's caught between black militants, racist cops, and warring racketeers. The character (created by novelist Ernest Tidyman) remains, according to Time magazine, "one of the first black movie heroes to talk back to the Man and get away with it." Produced for $1 million, it grossed over $12 million and, with Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, ushered in the short-lived blaxploitation craze. An Oscar-winner (for Isaac Hayes' theme song), Shaft far outdistanced the black-themed (and predominantly white-produced) action pictures to come by walking the line between crass exploitation and stinging indictment of urban racism, in its many permutations.

In 1972—the year his son, Gordon Parks Jr., directed and starred in Superfly (1972)—Parks Sr. directed and composed the music for Shaft's Big Score (1972), a slicker, less successful sequel that climaxed in a 16-minutes, air-sea-land chase a la countless James Bond capers. Instead of doing the third Shaft (Shaft in Africa), Parks became the first black director to do a non-black-themed studio picture: The Super Cops (1974), starring Ron Liebman and David Selby as undercover narcs who, like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the "Lethal Weapon" movies, bend the law to exact street justice. Many critics consider Super Cops Parks' best film.

In his sixties, Parks changed gears yet again to do a period biopic of blues-folk singer Huddie Ledbetter titled Leadbelly (1976). Roger E. Mosley played Ledbetter, a gifted 12-string guitarist who drifts in and out of prison as he's told, "It's gonna cost you to play the blues." Though it received favorable reviews—and remains Parks' favorite film —Leadbelly failed to find wide release and Parks' cachet as trailblazer continued to erode. In the 1980s, he turned to public television (doing the music and libretto for a PBS ballet based on Martin Luther King Jr.'s life) and had to content himself with the role of unofficial technical adviser on Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple and other prestige race films overseen by whites. In 1990, upon receiving the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame's Paul Robeson Award, Parks said, "I found myself thinking, 'I could direct this film (The Color Purple).' And looking back, I'm sure certain black directors could have brought a hell of a lot more sensitivity to certain 'white' movies about blacks." Little has changed in Hollywood since the early 1970s, he charges. "There's still a tremendous amount of discrimination and prejudice, and a lot of black talent continues to be wasted. . . . Getting money from white-run studios is still the problem. They still pay us a lot of lip service, but that's all."

Though he continues to write and collect honorary degrees, Parks' role in the integration of Hollywood has been all but forgotten. Critics generally disparage his studio films, which, like some of his best-known photographs, combine social awareness with a vulgarian's love of glitz and excess. In the 1990s, Parks was discovered by the new generation of black filmmakers anxious to seek his advice and validation. Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton called Shaft "a benchmark in American film" and added, "I think I'm walking in the path of Gordon Parks more than anybody." In 2000, Singleton put his own less-political spin on Shaft by casting Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft's even more stylish and volatile nephew, now a member of the NYPD. Parks, still sporting a pipe and walrus mustache, can be seen in a Harlem lounge cameo.

—Glenn Lovell

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Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks

Multi-faceted photojournalist, Gordon Parks (born 1912), documented many of the greatest images of the 20th century. He expanded his artistic pursuits from visual images to literature with his first novel, The Learning Tree, which he then adapted into an award-winning motion picture. Over the years, his works have included musical composition, orchestration, and poetry. The limit of Parks' talent remains to be discovered as he evolves with characteristic grace into the era of digital photography.

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas on November 30, 1912. He was the youngest of 15 siblings, the children of Andrew and Sarah (Ross) Jackson Parks. The rumor survives, more than eight decades later, that Parks was born dead. In what must have seemed a miracle, the attending physician was able to revive the infant. The physician, Dr. Gordon, acquired a namesake in the process.

The Parks family members were victims of extreme poverty. Andrew Parks was a dirt farmer whose wife passed away when Gordon was only 15. Following the death of Sarah Parks, members of the Parks family dispersed, and Gordon went to St. Paul, Minnesota to stay with an older sister. In St. Paul he attended Central High and Mechanical Arts High School, but the hardships of adult life set in before he received a diploma. Parks had failed to establish a congenial relationship with his brother-in-law. Thus, life became difficult. The relationship grew increasingly strained until Parks abruptly left his sister's household. Still in high school and jobless, he carried few belongings with him into the frigid Minnesota winter. He survived by taking odd jobs and tried to finish his education, but soon dropped out and drifted in search of work.

Young Artist on His Own

Even as a very young child, Parks sensed his own gift of music. As a youngster, he played an old Kimball piano whenever he could find the time. He was, in fact, able to pick and play most instruments that crossed his path. That innate sense of music enabled Parks to secure work as a piano player, albeit in the setting of a brothel. In time Parks joined the Larry Funk Orchestra and went on tour until the band dissolved in New York, at which point he found himself in Harlem and jobless once again. Parks joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 and used that employment to return to Minnesota, where he married Sally Alvis. In 1935 Parks went to work for the railroad.

Parks was a porter on the Northern Pacific Railroad in the late 1930s when he purchased a 35mm camera, a Voightlander Brilliant, from a pawn shop in Seattle. He carried the $10 camera to Puget Sound and shot some pictures of seagulls. Those first pictures were impressive, and they were on display at the developer's shop within weeks. Soon Parks secured a professional "shoot" for a woman's apparel store in St. Paul. Eventually his work was seen by Marva Louis, wife of prize-fighter Joe Louis. In 1941, she convinced Parks to move to Chicago, where she used her influence to procure photography assignments for him. In his spare time, Parks photographed the urban ghettos, and again his work was impressive. Within the year, Parks received a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation to study photography. He used the opportunity to apprentice with Roy Stryker at the Farm Services Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., beginning in January 1942. Parks documented images of the Great Depression. His first FSA picture, taken in 1942, was called "Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman." The classic photograph depicted a government employee, Ella Watson, who worked at one of the federal buildings in Washington, standing with a mop and broom against a backdrop of the American Flag. Parks found Watson to be an expressive subject, and he shot 85 pictures of her. The original photo of Watson, which is alternately titled "American Gothic, Washington, D.C." was one of over 200 works that Parks donated to Washington's Corcoran Art Gallery in 1998.

By 1943, Parks was a valued employee of Roy Stryker. When Stryker transferred to the Office of War Information, Parks went along. His assignment with the War Office was to document through photography the activities of the 332nd Fighter Group, the Tuskegee Airmen. He remained on that assignment until 1945 when he changed employers, again to work with Stryker. The pair went to work at Standard Oil in New Jersey where Parks photographed small towns and other urban views.

Parks was still employed by the federal government in 1944 when he accepted a freelance assignment from Vogue magazine to shoot some fashion sets. The Vogue assignments continued for several years. In 1947, Parks found the time to write a how-to book called Flash Photography. He followed with a second book called Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture in 1948. Also in 1948, Parks embarked on what evolved into a 20-year career as a member of the photography staff of Life magazine. That publication availed itself of his expressive artistry as well as his cultural background. As an African American, Parks received assignments few others would accept, including a moving and eloquent photographic documentary about the urban gangs in Harlem. Among the most expressive of the photographs in that work was a 1948 shot called "Red Jackson and Herbie Levy Study Wounds on Face of Slain Gang Member Maurice Gaines."

Brings Color to Life

During his career with Life, Parks photographed some of the most beautiful scenery and people in the world. In 1950, he spent two years in Paris, as the European correspondent for Life. He worked in the exclusive areas that bordered the Mediterranean Sea-France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Parks was privileged to photograph world aristocracy and celebrities, including Duke Ellington, Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rosselini, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Louis Armstrong. As Life opened new doors, Parks expanded his technical horizons. The growing popularity of film and television during the 1950s beckoned Parks to enlarge his creative arena. In 1958, he began his initial work with color photography, and the following year he added poetry to his repertoire. Life published a series of photographs by Parks, enhanced with verses of his own poems.

Parks went on to produce memorable photojournalism during the 1960s. In a 1961 essay on poverty in Brazil, his article centered on the family of Flavio Da Silva. Flavio, a twelve-year-old Brazilian boy at the time of the feature, was gravely ill, which put the welfare of his entire family into jeopardy. The Flavio Da Silva Story was hailed as a benchmark of journalism, partly because of the unanticipated outpouring of assistance provided to the Da Silva family in response to Parks' story.

Parks' work continued to profoundly influence the lives of his photographic subjects as well as his own family. In 1965, Parks documented the rift that occurred between civil rights leader Malcolm X and his church, the Nation of Islam. His work incensed the Nation of Islam, and Life was forced to provide security protection for Parks. His family left the country for a time, until the animosity subsided. In an earlier piece, in 1956, Parks described the plight of "Willy Causey and Family, Shady Grove, Alabama." The Causeys, too, were forced to flee their home under threats of retribution for Parks' honest yet disturbing journalism. The Causey essay, shot near Mobile, Alabama, was a documentary on the plight of segregated African Americans. In 1967, Parks documented a poverty-stricken family, the Fontenelles, from the tenements of Harlem. With intervention by Parks, the Fontenelles were assisted with $35,000 from Life. The money enabled the family to move to Long Island, although a series of tragedies continued to plague them.

Between 1968 and 1976, Parks worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter and film director. Beginning in 1968 and into 1969, he wrote the screenplay, produced the film, directed the filming, and composed the score for Learning Tree. The movie, which is autobiographical in nature, was filmed in Parks' hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas. Following the critical success of his first film, Parks made two films about the character Shaft, in the 1970s. In 1976 he filmed a movie, Leadbelly, about the life of the folk singer and guitarist, Huddie Ledbetter.

Lengthy List of Credits

The resume of Gordon Parks reads impressively, with 14 books, eight films, 12 musical compositions, a ballet, exhibitions, photographs, and paintings to his credit. He donated a vast archive of his creative work to the U.S. Library of Congress in 1995, because he "wanted it all stored under one roof and a roof that I [Parks] could respect," he was quoted in Jet.James Billington, the librarian of Congress, graciously accepted Parks' offer.

September 17, 1997 marked the first ceremony of the Gordon Parks Independent Film Awards. Chris Williams won the directing award for Asbury Park and Sheldon Sampson won the screenwriting award for Two Guns. In 1988, Parks made a documentary for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) entitled "Gordon Parks: Moments without Proper Names." In August of that same year, he received the National Medal of the Arts from President Ronald Reagan. At that ceremony the Washington Press Corps honored Parks with a standing ovation.

In 1989, at the age of 76, Parks penned a ballet entitled, "Martin," about Martin Luther King, Jr. The following year, Parks was inducted into the Journalism Hall of Fame by the National Association of Black Journalists. He also embarked on the exploration of a new artistic medium-digital ink-jet printing. Parks used the art form to create abstractions, many of which are based on photographs of landscapes; but other objects, even paintings, are used as well. With this new art form, Parks placed great emphasis on light and dark.

In addition to The Learning Tree, Parks penned three autobiographies: A Choice of Weapons, (1966); To Smile in Autumn, (1979); and Voices in the Mirror, (1990). His numerous poetry anthologies include Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera, Arias of Silence, and Glimpses Toward Infinity.

Among the many exhibitions of Parks' works were "Moments Without Proper Names," in 1996 at the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia; and the retrospective "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks," which opened in September 1997 at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. "Half Past Autumn" went on to St. Paul, New York City, Detroit, Memphis, West Palm Beach, Atlanta, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Chicago.

Parks has been the recipient of honorary degrees from a score of universities and art institutions. He was further honored by the Stockton School of East Orange, New Jersey-a communications media magnet, which was renamed the Gordon Parks Academy.

First Black

The prairie country where Parks spent his childhood was replete with segregated public schools, racially motivated killings, and even segregated cemeteries. Parks himself, on one occasion, was left to drown in a river because of his race, but survived the attack. He learned from his parents to avoid the "decay" of racism. He was quoted in Life, "The anger and bitterness are there, but you use those emotions to help you do what you want to do." In adulthood, Parks was the first African American photographer at Life and earlier the first African American at FSA. He witnessed, during his early career in Washington, the segregation of lunch counters, theaters, and other public buildings. Parks' production of The Learning Treewas the first "studio-financed" Hollywood motion picture directed by an African American.

Parks presented his reflections on racism through selected works. Born Black, a collection of his photographic essays for Life on the topic of black activism, was published in 1971. Parks directed the movie, Odyssey of Solomon Northrup in 1988. It tells the story, based in fact, about a free black man from the North who was taken into slavery by Southerners in the 1800s.

Close-Up

In contrast to his youth, Parks makes his home in a serene studio in Manhattan, overlooking the East River. He was quoted in Life concerning his latest creative outlet of painting, "I paint how I feel when I wake up. I may feel gentle, or very abrupt, like a dragon out of the sky."

Through nearly 50 years of married life, Parks maintained friendships with a trio of ex-wives. He and Sally Alvis Parks divorced in 1961 after 28 years of marriage. The following year, he married Elizabeth Campbell Rollins. They divorced in 1973. Later that year, on August 26, Parks married Genevieve Young. That final marriage lasted six years; the couple divorced in 1979.

Parks has three children from his first marriage: David, Leslie, and Toni Parks Parsons. An older son, Gordon Jr., was killed in a plane crash in 1979. Parks has two grandsons: Alain and Gordon III, and was honored to be named the godfather of Malcolm X's daughter, Qubilah Shabazz.

Further Reading

American Visions, August/September 1997, p. 11.

Jet, April 30, 1990, p. 12; July 31, 1995, p. 21; June 17, 1996, p. 23; December 16, 1996, p. 34; October 6, 1997, p. 35; January 19, 1998, p. 21; October 19, 1998, p. 33; December 7, 1998, p. 22.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 2, 1994.

Life, October, 1994, p. 26; September 1997, p. 94.

New York Amsterdam News, September 11, 1997, p. 29; September 25, 1997, p. 30.

Modern Maturity, June/July 1989, p. 56.

PSA Journal, November 1992, p. 26(8).

Smithsonian, April 1989, p. 66.

USA Today, September 1998, p. 46.

World & I, September 1993, p. 184(10). □

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Parks, Gordon 1912-2006 (Gordon Roger Alexander Parks)

Parks, Gordon 1912-2006 (Gordon Roger Alexander Parks)


OBITUARY NOTICE—

See index for SATA sketch: Born November 30, 1912, in Ft. Scott, KS; died March 7, 2006, in New York, NY. Photographer, film director, composer, and author. One of the most famous photographers of the twentieth century, Parks was also a talented moviemaker known for such films as Shaft and The Learning Tree, as well as being a music composer, poet, fiction writer, and journalist. Growing up the youngest child of a poor family in Kansas, he used his musical talent to gain one of his first jobs: piano player at a house of ill repute; he also found work as a railroad dining-car waiter. Fate took a more fortunate turn for him after he purchased a camera at a pawn shop and started earning money as a freelance fashion photographer in prewar Minneapolis. During World War II, Parks remained stateside, working for the Farm Security Administration and then for the Office of War Information. It was with the former government job that he snapped one of his most famous photos, "American Gothic, 1942," which portrays a cleaning lady holding a broom and mop in a pose that satirized Grant Wood's painting of a noble farming couple. After the war, Parks was employed by the Standard Oil Company in New Jersey for three years before joining the staff at Life magazine. From 1948 until the magazine shut its doors in 1972, he became famous for his photo essays depicting poverty, racism, and other social problems in America; his concern for women's issues would later lead him to help found the magazine Essence, which is directed at a black female audience. He also started publishing books, including guides on photography and his first novel, The Learning Tree (1963), which he would adapt to film in 1968. His first poetry collections A Poet and His Camera (1968) and Gordon Parks: Whispers of Intimate Things (1971) were also released. Though he did not produce many films over the years, the quality of the movies Parks created led many to cite him as on a par with such great filmmakers as John Ford. After The Learning Tree, for which he also composed the score, Parks completed the well-known blaxploitation film Shaft (1971); Parks was also critically praised for his 1976 release, Leadbelly. He made no more films after Leadbelly, but continued to work on his writing and photography; he also composed piano sonatas, a symphony, and a ballet, Martin (1990), about Martin Luther King, Jr. His willingness to adapt to changing times is especially apparent in his photography; in more recent years he employed computer manipulation in refining his photographic images. Among his many other publications are the poetry collection Moments without Proper Names (1975), the novel Shannon (1981), Glimpses toward Infinity (1996), and A Star for Noon: An Homage to Women in Images, Poetry, and Music (2000). The recipient of numerous awards and honors for his contributions to the arts, including the National Medal of Arts in 1988, Parks was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 2000.

OBITUARIES AND OTHER SOURCES:

BOOKS


Parks, Gordon, A Choice of Weapons, Harper (New York, NY), 1966.

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.

PERIODICALS


Chicago Tribune, March 8, 2006, section 1, pp. 1, 12.

Los Angeles Times, March 8, 2006, pp. A1, A12.

New York Times, March 8, 2006, p. C16.

Times (London, England), March 9, 2006, p. 69.

Washington Post, March 8, 2006, pp. A1, A13.

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Parks, Gordon

Gordon Parks (Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks), 1912–2006, African-American photographer, filmmaker, writer, and composer, b. Fort Scott, Kans. Parks purchased his first camera in 1938 and became a photographer for the Farm Security Administration in 1942. A largely self-taught trailblazer, he was the first African American photographer at Vogue (1944–49) and on the staff at Life (1948–72). A powerful photojournalist, he specialized in hard-hitting studies of poverty and urban black life, but he also produced elegant fashion photography and arresting portraiture. From the 1960s on he wrote novels, memoirs, poems, and screenplays, and in 1964 directed the first of seven motion pictures. Parks was the first black to write, produce, direct, and score a major Hollywood film—The Learning Tree (1969), adapted from his 1963 coming-of-age novel. His blockbuster Shaft (1971) marked the debut of the African-American action hero. Parks also composed orchestral works and a ballet (1989), and was cofounder and editorial director (1970–73) of Essence magazine.

See his memoirs (1966, 1979, 1990, 1997, 2005).

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Parks, Gordon

Parks, Gordon

November 30, 1912


A true Renaissance man, Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks Sr. has achieved international recognition in a wide variety of other fields including filmmaking, letters, and music. He has also pioneered as the first mainstream African-American photojournalist and as the first African American to direct a major Hollywood film.

Gordon Parks Sr. was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest in a farming family of fifteen children. His mother's death when Parks was sixteen, along with his aged father's rapidly failing ability to manage a household, led to the family's break-up, and Parks moved north to live with a married sister in Minneapolis. Unwelcome in his brother-in-law's home, the teenager was soon on his own, struggling to attend high school and support himself.

The Great Depression ended his formal education, but Parks seized every opportunity to learn by reading and attending closely to the talented individuals he encountered in his various jobs. As a teenager and later as a young husband and father, he worked as a bellhop, musician, semipro basketball player, and member of the Civilian Conservation Corps, primarily in the Midwest but also for a brief time in Harlem, New York. Relative security came with a position as a railroad dining car waiter. All the while Parks wrote, composed, and read, absorbing on his own what he had been unable to study in school.

The picture magazines of the dayVogue, Harper's Bazaar, and especially the brand-new Life magazine (first issued in November 1936)caught Parks's imagination. A newsreel cameraman's in-person presentation of his latest battle-action footage in a Chicago movie theater inspired Parks to take up photography himself, and in 1937 he acquired his first camera. Largely self-taught, he took his earliest photographs with only a few pointers from the camera salesman. Quickly mastering technique, he intuitively found the subjects most meaningful to him. The same local Minneapolis camera store soon gave him his first exhibition.

A successful fashion assignment for a stylish Minneapolis department store caught the attention of Marva (Mrs. Joe) Louis, who encouraged Parks to establish himself in Chicago. His fashion background served him well there (as it would later throughout his years at Life ) photographing Gold Coast socialites. In his spare time, he documented the grim poverty of the city's South Side, the fast-growing Chicago enclave of African Americans displaced from the rural South who came north for jobs in the heavy industries surrounding the Great Lakes.

This socially conscious camera work won for the young photographer, now responsible for a growing family of his own, the very first Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in photography. The 19421943 stipend enabled Parks to work with photographic mentor Roy Stryker in Washington, D.C., at the Farm Security Administration. This was the closing years of the influential New Deal agency that had undertaken a pioneering photo documentation of depression conditions in urban and rural America.

Parks continued with Stryker until 1947, first as a correspondent for the Office of War Information, and later at the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, photographing the face of America for the company's public relations campaign. In the brief months before he began to work for Life magazine in 1948, Parks photographed for Vogue and Glamour and also authored two books on photographic technique: Flash Photography (1947) and Camera Portraits: The Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture (1948).

Early in his more than two decades at Life, Parks spent two influential years assigned to the magazine's Paris office, where he covered fashion, the arts, celebrities, and political figures. The experience was seminal, providing a rich window on the diversity of contemporary creative expression as well as an opportunity for international recognition.

Moreover, like other African Americans, he found the European experience, with its relative lack of racial barriers, especially liberating.

Back in the United States during the 1950s and early 1960s, Parks executed hundreds of photographic assignments for Life that reflect the magazine's far-ranging coverage: popular culture, high fashion, arts, entertainment, sports, national events, and the personalities of business, labor, and politics. Parks's direct, realistic style of photographing life in America and abroad won him international renown as the first African-American photojournalist.

Parks's longest assignment began in 1961, when he traveled to Brazil to photograph the slums of Rio de Janeiro. His story of Flavio da Silvia, a poverty-stricken Brazilian boy whom Parks found dying of asthma, attracted international attention that resulted in Flavio and his family receiving gifts, medical treatment, and, finally, a new home. At the same time, with the emerging civil rights movement, Parks undertook a new role at Life: interpreting the activities and personalities of the movement, in words as well as pictures, from a personal perspective. His 1971 anthology Born Black is a collection of these essays and images.

A gifted storyteller, Parks began his chronological autobiographical book cycle in 1963 with The Learning Tree, a well-received novel that drew on the author's own childhood experiences and memories. This was followed in 1966 by A Choice of Weapons, a powerful first-person narrative that recounted the events and influences that enabled Parks to overcome societal prejudice and personal hardship. It is the most insightful of the series, illuminating the development of a sensitive and self-confident young man as he grows into what he will become, an artist of universal conscience and compassion.

Parks also gained distinction as a poet, composer, and filmmaker, becoming in 1969 the first African American to direct a major Hollywood film. He also produced and wrote the script for The Learning Tree and directed a number of other films, including the highly popular Shaft (1971), Leadbelly (1976), and The Odyssey of Solomon Northup (1984), about a free black sold into slavery. In addition, Parks has completed the music for a ballet about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and has worked on a novel based on the life of J. M. W. Turner, the nineteenth-century English landscape painter. In 1998 he published Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective.

Parks is the recipient of numerous professional awards, organization citations, and honorary degrees, among them Photographer of the Year from the American Society of Magazine Photographers (1960), the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP (1972), and the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan. In 2002 he received the Jackie Robinson Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum. The first Gordon Parks Celebration of Culture and Diversity, a four-day event, took place in Parks's hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, in October 2004.

Parks's greatest satisfaction and motivation is expressed in his prologue to Moments Without Proper Names, one of his three books of poems accompanied by his photographs:

I hope always to feel the responsibility to communicate the plight of others less fortunate than myself, to show the abused and those who administer the abuses, to point up the pain of the underprivileged as well as the pleasures of the privilegedsomehow to evoke the same response from a housewife in Harlem as I would from a seamstress in Paris or a butcher in Vladivostok.

In helping one another we can ultimately save ourselves. We must give up silent watching and put our commitments into practice.

See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Film in the United States; Photography, U.S.

Bibliography

Bush, Martin H. The Photographs of Gordon Parks. Wichita, Kans.: Wichita State University, 1983.

Harnan, Terry. Gordon Parks, Black Photographer. Champaign, Ill.: Garrard, 1972.

Parks, Gordon. Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective. New York: Bulfinch, 1997.

Turk, Midge. Gordon Parks. New York: Crowel, 1971.

julia van haaften (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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Parks, Gordon

Gordon Parks

Born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks, November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, KS; died of complications from high blood pressure and prostate cancer, March 7, 2006, in New York, NY. Photographer and director. A creative pioneer in several fields, Gordon Parks first became famous for his affecting photographs in the 1940s. He became the first black staff photographer at the prestigious Life magazine and eventually one of the most influential photographers of the mid-20th century. After 20 years chronicling the civil-rights movement and the suffering of the poor, he became Hollywood's first black director, producing a semi-autobiographical film and the classic black detective film Shaft. "No matter what medium he chose for his self-expression, he sought to challenge stereotypes while still communicating to a large audience," wrote Andy Grundberg of the New York Times. "In finding early acclaim as a photographer despite a lack of professional training, he became convinced that he could accomplish whatever he set his mind to. To an astonishing extent, he proved himself right."

The youngest of 15 children, Parks was born to Andrew Jackson Parks, a poor farmer, and his devout Methodist wife, Sarah, in Fort Scott, Kansas, a small segregated town. He attended a segregated elementary school and a high school where blacks were not allowed to play sports or attend social functions. He often recalled, later in life, that one of his teachers told black students not to go to college, since they were destined to become maids and porters.

Parks did not finish high school. His mother died when he was 15, and he went to live with an older sister and her husband in St. Paul, Minnesota. But his brother-in-law soon threw him out of the house after an argument, leaving him homeless. He briefly worked in a brothel as a piano player, but quit after one customer stabbed another in front of him. He worked as a bellboy at a club, then a hotel. Meanwhile, Parks was writing his own compositions. In 1932, a bandleader overheard him playing one of his songs on the piano in the hotel ballroom. The bandleader performed his song on a radio broadcast and invited him to join the band. Meanwhile, in 1933, Parks married Sally Alvis. They soon had a child, Gordon Jr. Parks toured with the band for about a year. When it broke up, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and worked clearing forest land.

By 1937, Parks was working as a waiter on a train. The turning point in his life came when he saw photographs of migrant farm workers in a magazine a train passenger had left behind. Photographers working for the government's Farm Security Administration had taken these images to illustrate the effects of the Great Depression. "I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs," he told an interviewer in 1999 (as quoted by Gundberg of the New York Times). "I knew at that point I had to have a camera." Parks quickly bought one at a pawnshop in Seattle, then spent three years teaching himself photography.

In 1940, Parks convinced the owner of a women's clothing store in St. Paul to hire him as a fashion photographer. His work impressed Marva Louis, wife of legendary boxer Joe Louis, who convinced Parks to move to Chicago. She helped him get work shooting fashion and society photos; Parks also shot pictures of poverty on Chicago's South Side. That work won him a fellowship, which took him to Washington, D.C. to learn technique from the head of the Farm Security Administration's photography unit. He was assigned to document discrimination in Washington, so he photographed Ella Watson, a cleaning woman in the Farm Security Administration's offices whose father had been killed by a lynch mob, standing in front of an American flag holding a mop and broom. He entitled the photo "American Gothic, 1942," a reference to Grant Wood's 1931 painting of a white farm couple. At the time he took the photograph, he was angry that a clothing store, movie theater, and restaurant had all recently refused him service. His boss praised the photo but feared it would get them both fired; instead, it became one of Parks' most famous images.

When the agency was closed in 1943, Parks went to work for the government's Office of War Information, becoming its first black photographer. He compiled a photo essay on the training of the country's first black fighter pilot squadron. He spent three years on a project shooting American small towns and industrial centers for the Standard Oil of New Jersey Photography Project, and also did fashion photography for Glamour and Vogue magazines. In 1948, as a freelancer, he photographed Harlem gangs for Life magazine, the largest photo magazine in the United States. His essay, which focused on Red Jackson, a 16-year-old gang leader, led to Life hiring him as its first black staff photographer.

Parks spent more than 20 years shooting for Life, completing more than 300 assignments, ranging from stylized portraits of celebrity beauty to somber studies of racism and poverty. His famous portrait subjects included Barbra Streisand, Aaron Copland, and Gloria Vanderbilt. He spent 1949 through 1951 at the Paris bureau of Life, photographing everything from a state funeral to ordinary scenes. His 1956 photo essay documented the humiliation of segregation in the Deep South. Southerners twice threatened to lynch him while he was photographing the civil rights movement and other events for the magazine. Parks' photo essay "Freedom's Fearful Foe: Poverty," shot in the slums of Rio de Janiero, Brazil, in 1961, focused on a family whose young son, Flavio da Silva, was dying of malnutrition and asthma. Donations and free treatment at a Denver hospital helped save Flavio's life, and Life paid for a new home for the da Silvas. Parks directed a documentary on the boy in 1964 and wrote a biography about him, Flavio, in 1978.

Parks' groundbreaking position with Life often put him in awkward situations. Some black militants criticized him for working for a white publication, and Parks once upset other black photographers by not joining their protest against Life for not employing them. On the other hand, Life editors began to question Parks' ability to be objective toward black subjects. Still, in the early 1960s, Parks photo-graphed black radical groups, including the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims. Life had assigned white photographers to cover the groups, but they were not able to get access to them, so the editors turned to Parks. He wrote an essay about the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X that provoked a plot to murder him as well. Life sent his family abroad to protect them and put Parks under armed guard for a time.

Parks also wrote several books, starting with a photography manual in the late 1940s, followed by three memoirs, a historical novel, and a collection of essays on civil-rights leaders. One book, The Learning Tree, a semi-autobiographical novel about a black teen in rural Kansas, became a best-seller in 1963. Warner Bros. later hired him to write, direct, and score a film adaptation of his book. It was released in 1969, making him the first African-American moviemaker ever to direct a major Hollywood film.

That success led to a second film project. In 1971, Parks produced and directed the action thriller Shaft, about a cool, stylish black detective. The film was a hit among both black and white audiences, making Shaft Hollywood's first black action hero. The film's theme song, by Isaac Hayes, won an Oscar. The movie helped inspire the 1970s film genre known as blaxploitation, action films in urban settings with black lead characters, though Parks insisted that Shaft was not an exploitative movie. Parks continued to direct films in the 1970s, including a sequel to Shaft and a documentary about blues singer Leadbelly. Parks also helped launch the black magazine Essence and worked as its editorial director from 1970 to 1973.

Parks' success took him far from his early years in rural Kansas. He lived in a Manhattan high-rise with a view of the East River. In 1988, he received the National Medal of Arts from U.S. President Ronald Reagan. He also wrote the music for a ballet tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. He spent much of the 1980s and 1990s helping to create retrospectives of his work. One, Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks, toured American museums in the late 1990s.

Parks died on March 7, 2006, of complications from high blood pressure and prostate cancer at his Manhattan home. He was 93. He is survived by his son, David; his daughters, Toni and Leslie; five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. His son Gordon Jr. died in a 1979 plane crash. His marriages to Sally Alvis, Elizabeth Campbell, and Genevieve Young ended in divorce.

Sources:

Chicago Tribune, March 8, 2006, sec. 1, p. 1, p. 12; Los Angeles Times, March 8, 2006, p. A1, p. A12; New York Times, March 8, 2006, p. C16; People, March 27, 2006, pp. 135-137; Times (London), March 9, 2006, p. 69; Washington Post, March 8, 2006, p. A1, p. A13.

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