Gordon Parks - Biography and Legacy
American Photographer, Musician, Writer, and Film Director
Fort Scott, Kansas
Manhattan, New York
Biography of Gordon Parks
Gordon Rodger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas to Sarah and Andrew Jackson Parks, a tenant farmer and odd jobs man. He was the youngest of fifteen children and attended a segregated elementary school. Parks then attended the integrated Mechanical Arts High School, since the town did not have enough money for a second high school to maintain segregation. This integrated school, however, continued segregation in the way it limited the activities of the black students; for example, they were not allowed to play sports, attend social events hosted by the school, and were discouraged from pursuing higher education. When Parks was eleven, three white bullies threw him into the Marmaton River hoping he would drown. He escaped by ducking underwater so they would not see him make it to land. Thus, and in numerous other ways, Parks experienced from an early age the systemic racism prevalent in American society.
Parks was fourteen, when his mother died. A year later, he was sent to live in the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota with his older sister Maggie Lee and her husband. He lived with them for only a year, when his brother-in-law kicked him out of the house. "That man didn't like children and didn't want to take me on, and I sensed that the minute I walked into his house," Parks recalled. At fifteen, Parks was forced to fend for himself. He initially continued his schooling at Central High School, but eventually dropped out before graduation. Eager to earn a living, he worked a number of jobs as a brothel pianist and a busboy in a gentleman's club. He went on the road as a jack-of-all trades with a big band jazz troupe, occasionally sitting in on the piano. When the group disbanded in New York, Parks made his way to Harlem where he joined the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps, planting trees and building campsites in New Jersey. He then returned newly married to Sally Alvis (whom he married in 1933) to Minneapolis-St. Paul and secured a job as a porter on the Northern Pacific Railroad.
Early Training and Work
During his migratory year serving train travelers, Parks had access for the first time to picture magazines the passengers left behind on their journeys. After seeing a spread featuring the portraits of migrant works, Parks bought his first camera - a Voightlander Brilliant - at a pawnshop in Seattle, Washington during a train layover. He then taught himself how to take photographs. As his eye developed, he married his new talent with his ability to connect with people, and his anger about deep-seated issues he saw across his travels in the United States. Parks sought to photograph what mattered to him: the humane side of all people, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, or religious beliefs.
Parks remarked, "I didn't start photography until about 1939 and up until that time I had worked as a waiter on the railway, bartended, played semi-professional basketball, semi-professional football, working in a brick plant, you name it, you know, just about everything." At twenty-five, Parks continued to search for steady employment, as photography increasingly became his obsession, especially after seeing what the photographers from the FSA were doing with pictures of poverty, a subject he knew so well. The Farm Security Administrations (FSA, 1937-1946) was an agency developed under the New Deal to combat rural poverty during the Great Depression in the United States.
Parks' move toward success was quick and serendipitous. He impressed the clerk who developed his first roll of film and encouraged him to work for a fashion magazine. His aptitude for fashion photography convinced Marilyn Murphy to give him the first opportunity to shoot fashion at her department store in St. Paul. Marva Louis, wife of boxing campion Joe Lewis, saw Parks' photos and was taken by his talent. She persuaded Parks and his wife Sally Alvis to move to Chicago, where Parks would predominately take portraits of well-off, society women. Upon arriving in the city, he immediately set up residence at the Southside Community Arts Center's (SSCAC) darkroom and participated in its activities. The SSCAC was a branch of the Federal Art Project, established under the New Deal during the Great Depression. He befriended painter Charles White, sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, and writer Langston Hughes; he was also exposed to the Social Realism of Isaac Soyer, Max Weber, and William Gropper.
Influenced by the SSCAC's artistic community, Parks began documenting the southside ghetto. This documentary work formed the portfolio Parks submitted to the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a fellowship program for talented young African Americans. He even won one of the coveted fellowships. Consequently, he wrote to Roy Stryker, picture editor, economist, and administrator of the FSA's Historical Division, and asked to become a photographer at the unit. He was accepted and in 1942, just after the United States entered WWII, Parks moved his family to Washington, DC. His work at the FSA quickly put Parks on the map, making him one of the first high-profile black photographers working in America.
After the FSA closed in 1943, Parks became a freelance photographer. He published his first major photo essay in Life Magazine in 1948. The photo essays success won Parks a position as the first African American staff photographer for Life Magazine, the most prominent illustrated magazine in the world.
Through his work for the magazine, Parks became known for his photo essays of poor Americans from the 1940s through the 1970s. He captured real-life issues and people struggling with poverty, social injustice, and marginalization. As prolific and substantial as the platform was for Parks, he often ceded control over his photo essays when turning them into Life magazine. Parks realized early on that despite his own motives and narratives he hoped to capture in his photo essays, the picture editors at Life altered them. For example, in his first photo essay "Harlem Gang Leader," Parks aimed to highlight the humanity of Red Jackson and his fellow gang members, showing them as they were - teenagers who, with support of social service agencies, might be able to turn their lives around. However, as the photo-historian Russell Lord noted, "While the tone of the published photo essays was generally sympathetic to Jackson and other gang members, it emphasizes violence and slighted the potential for rehabilitation." As a way to gain some control over the narratives, Parks subsequently insisted that he write the captions for his photographs.
At the same time, while covering the gang wars plaguing Harlem, Parks demonstrated his versatility and fulfilled a fashion assignment. Life's editor Wilson Hicks was pleased and entrusted Parks with one of the magazine's key assignments, namely the French collections. Only after two years at Life and dozens of stories under his belt, Parks began working out of the magazine's Paris bureau. From 1950 to 1951, he would lead the life of the peripathetic photojournalist, experiencing acceptance and freedom as he traveled Europe covering a host of stories. His ability to quickly move from shooting high-profile actors, writers, aristocrats, and politicians, to shooting average people living their everyday lives is a testament to Parks ability to see all people as equal, each in their own right to have their story heard and seen.
Parks capacity to move across different social and cultural circles enabled him to document the upheavals of the 1960s from within the radical countercultures and yet speak to his mainstream readership. His assignments from 1956 to 1968 made him known for a sincere, direct, stylistically radical, and lyrical mode of photography. It is at this time that he worked without a writer, producing his own text for stories involving black subjects. Parks conceived many of his photo essays at this time as extended profiles of prominent black leaders and athletes, including Muhammad Ali, Malcom X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael. He excelled at portraiture and over the years he photographed writers, composers, artists, actors, fashion designers, and politicians, such as Glenn Gould, Richard Wright, Robert Frost, Paul Newman, Duke Ellington, Alberto Giacometti, among others. He even photographed debutants and socialites, such as Gloria Vanderbilt in 1954.
Parks remained active throughout his life, even up until his death from liver cancer in 2006. Along with his iconic photographs and films, Parks expanded his work, moving from photography and film to include writing, and composing. As the cultural historian Maurice Berger noted, "[Parks] transition to writing reflected a form of cultural activism, a realization that in order to cross the next barricade, he would have to tell his own stories; that "the war against racism -- a problem he saw as complex and intractable -- needed to be fought on multiple aesthetic fronts, through a range of media, contexts, and approaches." He became therefore an author and published the bestselling novel, The Learning Tree (1963), which he later adapted into a film he wrote and directed in 1969. The book and film are semi-autobiographical, drawing from Parks' childhood in Fort Scott, Kansas, which served as the basis for the town in the film called Cherokee Flats and the actual place for shooting the film.
The title of the film is taken from a line the main character Newt Winger's mother says, "Let Cherokee Flats be your learning tree." This line means to impart the message that no matter where you go, travel, or work, the place where you grew up fosters valuable lessons to learn from. This is reflected in a quote of Parks, in which he says, "I think maybe the rural influence in my life helped me in a sense, of knowing how to get close to people and talk to them and get my work done."
During his later years, Parks went through a number of marriages and divorces. He divorced his first wife Sally Alvis in the early sixties. He then married Elizabeth Campbell, whom he divorced after eleven years of marriage in 1973. That same year, he married Genevieve Young, his literary editor. Their marriage only lasted six years before they also divorced. From these relationships, Parks had four children. The oldest, Gordon Parks Jr., was also a photographer and filmmaker. Parks Jr. died in a plane crash in 1979 when shooting a film in Kenya. However, Parks had a long-standing friendship and eventually relationship with Gloria Vanderbilt, a socialite he first met in 1954 when he photographed her for Life magazine..
The Legacy of Gordon Parks
Parks' work for Life Magazine has had a lasting impact on American culture at large. Parks' photographs not only serve as necessary documents of our country's history, but they also "emphasized the prosaic details" of the lives of black families during this time," according to the historian Maren Stange. As such, his photographs gave a real-life depiction of the conditions many black-Americans experienced, influencing much of Life Magazine's readership, which was predominantly white and upper middle-class.
Later, Parks' most lasting contributions outside his photography practice was in film. His films gave rise to an entirely new genre in filmmaking, known as Blaxpoitation. The film director Spike Lee considers Parks as exceptionally influential, not only in his technical ability, but also in the pure sense that Parks made the films he did during the time of severe racism, when there were no other black directors. As Lee points out, that was enough to inspire generations of black artists after Parks.
In a monumental 2016 exhibition inspired by Parks, curator James Barron put together Fifty Years After: Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Mickalene Thomas, LaToya Ruby Frazier, which examines the themes Parks engaged through the lens of female photographers he inspired. On the exhibition, Barron said, "I wanted to include Gordon Parks in the show and focus on 50 years after civil rights Where are we now, 50 years after Gordon Parks opened the door for these women photographers?"
The Gordon Parks Foundation continues to preserve Parks' work and make it available to the public. It supports artistic and educational activities that advance Parks' purpose, which he described as "the common search for a better life and a better world."