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Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, on November 30, 1912, the youngest of fifteen children. His mother died when he was fifteen and he was sent to live with a sister and her husband in St. Paul, Minnesota. Just before Christmas one year an argument between Parks and his brother-in-law resulted in Parks being thrown out of the house. Now homeless and penniless, he slept on streetcars and once walked more than ten miles through a snowstorm to answer an ad for a job. Over the next few years, he found work as a piano player in a brothel, played semi-pro basketball, went on tour with a band, and helped clear forests. He returned to St. Paul in 1934, and took a job as a dining car waiter and porter on the North Coast Limited.
Parks became interested in photography while working on the railroad, taking his first pictures in Seattle, Washington, in 1937, with a camera he had bought in a pawn shop. Upon his return to St. Paul, he dropped his film off at Eastman Kodak in Minneapolis. The gentleman who developed the film complimented Parks on the quality of the pictures and promised that if he pursued a photography career Kodak would give him an exhibition; and, sure enough, Kodak later made good on that promise and gave him his first exhibition.
Parks began a new career as a fashion photographer. One day Marva Louis, wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, saw some of Parks' photographs on display in a store and encouraged him to move to Chicago where she could get him work; he took her up on the offer. Supporting his family through fashion photography, Parks spent his "free time" documenting life in the city's slums. His documentary photographs won him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1941, which earned him $200 a month and gave him the opportunity to pick and choose from potential employers.
In January 1942, Parks became the first black to work for the Farm Security Administration, where he joined some of the finest documentary photographers in the country. One of his most significant photographs was taken on his first day in Washington, D.C. After a day of facing racial prejudice in restaurants and stores, Parks came across Mrs. Ella Watson, a black woman who had mopped floors for the government most of her life. He carefully posed her with a mop and broom in front of an American flag and took her picture. The resulting photo (seen at left), which Parks called "American Gothic, Washington, D.C.," became a powerful symbol of the subservience of blacks in America. While at the FSA, Parks did all he could to break down racial barriers. With the full support of his boss, Roy Stryker, he took documentary photographs of everyday life, using his camera to depict racism and poverty.
After the FSA disbanded in 1943, Parks became the first black correspondent for the Office of War Information. One of his first assignments was photographing the training of the first unit of black fighter pilots, the 332nd Fighter Group (also known as The Tuskegee Airmen). Prohibited from accompanying them to Europe and documenting their participation in the war, Parks left government service.
Moving to Harlem, New York, Parks tried to get a position with a major fashion magazine. After being turned down by the Hearst Corporation, publisher of Harper's Bazaar, he came to the attention of famed photographer Edward Steichen, who sent him to Alexander Liberman, director of Vogue magazine. Liberman then put Parks in touch with the senior editor of Glamour magazine, and by the 1944 Parks was contributing fashion photos to both magazines. In 1944, Parks' former boss, Roy Stryker, offered him a job with Standard Oil of New Jersey taking pictures of company executives and doing a documentary series for Standard Oil on life in America.
In 1948, Parks became the first black to become a photojournalist for Life magazine. His first assignment was a profile of notorious Harlem gang leader Red Jackson, a work that Parks would later cite as one of his most important. By the early 1960's, Parks was writing his own essays to accompany his photographs. He would work at Life until 1972, and complete more than 300 assignments. When asked 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, 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 the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
One assignment Parks did not list but which nonetheless attracted a lot of attention was his 1961 photodocumentary of poverty in Brazil. While there he met a young, asthmatic boy named Flavio da Silva, who was dying in the hills above Rio de Janeiro. Parks' photo essay on Flavio resulted in readers donating thousands of dollars to bring Flavio to a clinic in the United States for treatment. Flavio was cured and he and Parks remained friends until the latter's death; Flavio still lives outside of Rio.
Hollywood Writer and Director
Parks' first cinematic effort was a documentary film about Flavio, which he wrote and directed in 1962.
In 1968, Parks became the first black to produce and direct a film for a major studio, when Warner Brothers Seven Arts released The Learning Tree, which was based on Parks' 1963 autobiographical novel. Parks also wrote the screenplay and composed the musical score for the film, which is now listed on the National Film Register by the Library of Congress.
Parks' film career did not end with The Learning Tree, as he went on to direct other highly acclaimed dramas, including: Shaft (1971), Shaft's Big Score (1972), and The Super Cops (1974), for MGM; and Leadbelly (1976), for Paramount. He went on to film several documentaries for television, including Solomon Northrup's Odyssey, The World of Piri Thomas, Diary of a Harlem Family, and Mean Streets.
The Learning Tree was Parks' first published work of fiction. Loosely based on his own life, the story focuses on Newt Winger, the youngest son of a poor black family in a small Kansas town, and how he managed to maintain his dignity and self-respect despite racial prejudice, financial troubles and other problems. In 1966, he published A Choice of Weapons, an autobiographical work in which he detailed the time of his life that he had previously fictionalized in The Learning Tree, covering the period from the time of his mother's death to 1944. In 1979, he published To Smile in Autumn, in which he detailed his life from 1944, when his first fashion photographs appeared in Vogue and Glamour, to 1978. He also published several volumes of his own poetry, with accompanying photographs, as well as Born Black (1971), a collection of articles on notable African-Americans, for which the NAACP awarded him its prestigious Spingarn Medal.
A major retrospective showing twenty-five years of his photographs took place in New York in 1975.
Parks' autobiographical film, Moments without Proper Names, aired on PBS in 1988.
He completed the musical score and libretto for Martin, a ballet about Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1989. It was aired by PBS on King's birthday in 1990.
In 1998, he published Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, which accompanied a traveling exhibit of his work organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He also composed a piano sonata to be played at each showing.
The first Gordon Parks Celebration of Culture and Diversity, a four-day event, began in Parks' hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, on October 11, 2004. The celebration has been an annual event ever since.
Gordon Parks died in New York City, on March 7, 2006, at the age of 93.
Awards and Honors
Married Sally Alvis, his childhood sweetheart, in 1933, with whom he had three children -- Gordon, Jr., Toni, and David. Gordon Jr. grew up to become a film director, and was behind the 1972 classic Superfly. He died in a plane crash in Kenya in 1979.
Married Elizabeth Campbell, with whom he had one daughter, Leslie. The couple subsequently divorced.
Married Genevieve Young, a book editor, in 1975. The couple divorced in 1979.
This page was last updated on 01/09/2017.