Gordon Parks was a world-renowned photographer, musician, film director, composer, author, and social justice activist. Best known for his documentary photojournalism that explored the impact of poverty and racial discrimination on communities of color, Parks’ photography appeared in many news and fashion publications, including Vogue and Life. He was the first African American to write, produce, and direct major motion pictures.
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born to Sarah and Andrew Jackson Parks on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas. The youngest of fifteen children, Parks grew up in a community plagued by poverty and racial violence.
Following the death of his mother in 1928, the sixteen-year-old Parks moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with his older sister. He then enrolled in Mechanic Arts High School and found a job bussing tables. Soon after, however, he had a fight with his ill-tempered brother-in-law and was kicked out. Parks found himself homeless in his first Minnesota winter. In his autobiography, A Choice of Weapons, Parks wrote about riding trolleys between Minneapolis and St. Paul to keep warm at night.
After several weeks of starvation, Parks almost resorted to robbery. It was only when he reminded himself of his mother’s teachings and high expectations for him that he stopped himself. Eventually, he found a job playing piano at a Minneapolis brothel and managed to stay off the streets. Parks had to look for housing and work several times over before his father, sisters, and brother finally joined him a few months later.
Parks managed to stay in school throughout this period. In 1929, he enrolled in Central High School, only to drop out a few months later due to the start of the Great Depression. He spent the next few years struggling to make ends meet and briefly toured with Larry Funk’s orchestra as its only Black musician.
In 1937, Parks was waiting tables on a train when he came across images of Depression-era migrant workers taken by Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers. He was inspired to buy a camera at a pawn shop and became a self-taught photographer. In 1940, he was hired to shoot for Frank Murphy’s department stores in St. Paul; the same year, he and his wife Sally moved to Chicago.
In 1942, Parks won a photography award that landed him a job at the FSA in Washington, DC. After the FSA disbanded, he worked for the Office of War Information (OWI) and the Standard Oil Photography Project. With an eye for the beauty in the mundane and a natural attunement to human suffering, Parks developed a style that would make him one the most celebrated photographers of his time. He started freelancing for Glamour, Ebony, and Vogue, and produced fashion photography that captured the motion of models and garments. In 1948, his photographic essay on a Harlem gang leader earned him a job as the first African American photographer at Life, where he worked until 1972.
Parks’s photography and writing provided invaluable documentation of the nation’s economic upheavals and struggles towards racial equality. In addition to being a celebrated photographer, Parks was also a successful composer, writer, and filmmaker. In 1969, he adapted his bestselling novel The Learning Tree into a film and composed the score for it. His next film, Shaft (1971), was a critical and box-office success, inspiring many sequels. Parks published numerous books, including memoirs, novels, poetry, and books on photographic technique. In 1989 he produced, directed, and composed the music for a ballet production, Martin, dedicated to the late Martin Luther King, Jr.
Throughout his career, Parks won countless awards, including a Photographer of the Year award from the American Society of Magazine Photographers, a Notable Book Award from the American Library Association, and an Emmy. He was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, the NAACP Hall of Fame, and the International Photography Hall of Fame. In addition to over twenty honorary doctorates, he received the Governor’s Medal of Honor from the state of Kansas and the Congress of Racial Equality Lifetime Achievement Award.
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