Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks (November 30, 1912 – March 7, 2006) was an American photographer, musician, writer and film director, who became prominent in U.S. documentary photojournalism in the 1940s through 1970s—particularly in issues of civil rights, poverty and African-Americans—and in glamour photography.
As the first famous pioneer among black filmmakers, he was the first African American to produce and direct major motion pictures—developing films relating the experience of slaves and struggling black Americans, and creating the “blaxploitation” genre. He is best remembered for his iconic photos of poor Americans during the 1940s (taken for a federal government project), for his photographic essays for Life magazine, and as the director of the 1971 film Shaft. Parks also was an author, poet and composer.
Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, the son of Sarah (née Ross) and Jackson Parks, on Nov. 30, 1912. He was the youngest of fifteen children. His father was a farmer who grew corn, beets, turnips, potatoes, collard greens, and tomatoes. They also had a few ducks, chickens, and hogs.
He attended a segregated elementary school. The town was too small to afford a separate high school that would facilitate segregation of the secondary school, but blacks were not allowed to play sports or attend school social activities, and they were discouraged from developing any aspirations for higher education. Parks related in a documentary on his life that his teacher told him that his desire to go to college would be a waste of money.
When Parks was eleven years old, three white boys threw him into the Marmaton River, knowing he couldn’t swim. He had the presence of mind to duck underwater so they wouldn’t see him make it to land. His mother died when he was fourteen. He spent his last night at the family home sleeping beside his mother’s coffin, seeking not only solace, but a way to face his own fear of death.
Soon after, he was sent to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with a sister and her husband. He and his uncle argued frequently and Parks was finally turned out onto the street to fend for himself at age 15. Struggling to survive, he worked in brothels, and as a singer, piano player, bus boy, traveling waiter, and semi-pro basketball player. In 1929, he briefly worked in a gentlemen’s club, the Minnesota Club. There he not only observed the trappings of success, but was able to read many books from the club library. When the Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought an end to the club, he jumped a train to Chicago, where he managed to land a job in a flophouse.
While working as a waiter in a railroad dining car, he began seeing the portfolios of photographers in picture magazines and decided to become a photographer.
At the age of 25, Parks was struck by photographs of migrant workers in a magazine. He bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brillant, for $7.50 at a Seattle, Washington, pawnshop and taught himself how to take photos. The photography clerks who developed Parks’s first roll of film applauded his work and prompted him to seek a fashion assignment at a women’s clothing store in St. Paul, Minnesota, owned by Frank Murphy. Those photographs caught the eye of Marva Louis, wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. She encouraged Parks to move to Chicago in 1940, where he began a portrait business and specialized in photographs of society women. Parks’s photographic work in Chicago, especially in capturing the myriad experiences of African Americans across the city, led him to receive the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, which, in turn, contributed to being asked to join the Farm Security Administration under the auspice of Roy Stryker.
Over the next few years, Parks moved from job to job, developing a freelance portrait and fashion photographer sideline. He began to chronicle the city’s South Side black ghetto and, in 1941, an exhibition of those photographs won Parks a photography fellowship with the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Working at the FSA as a trainee under Roy Stryker, Parks created one of his best-known photographs, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., named after the iconic Grant Wood painting, American Gothic—a legendary painting of a traditional, stoic, white American farm couple—which bore a striking, but ironic, resemblance to Parks’ photograph of a black menial laborer. Parks’ “haunting” photograph shows a black woman, Ella Watson, who worked on the cleaning crew of the FSA building, standing stiffly in front of an American flag hanging on the wall, a broom in one hand and a mop in the background. Parks had been inspired to create the image after encountering racism repeatedly in restaurants and shops in the segregated capital city.
Upon viewing the photograph, Stryker said that it was an indictment of America, and that it could get all of his photographers fired. He urged Parks to keep working with Watson, however, which led to a series of photographs of her daily life. Parks said later that his first image was overdone and not subtle; other commentators have argued that it drew strength from its polemical nature and its duality of victim and survivor, and so has affected far more people than his subsequent pictures of Mrs. Watson.
(Parks’ overall body of work for the federal government—using his camera “as a weapon”—would draw far more attention from contemporaries and historians than that of all other black photographers in federal service at the time. Today, most historians reviewing federally commissioned black photographers of that era focus almost exclusively on Parks.)
After the FSA disbanded, Parks remained in Washington, D.C. as a correspondent with the Office of War Information, where he photographed the all-black 332d Fighter Group. He was unable to follow the group in the overseas war theatre, so he resigned from the O.W.I. He would later follow Stryker to the Standard Oil Photography Project in New Jersey, which assigned photographers to take pictures of small towns and industrial centers. The most striking work by Parks during that period included, Dinner Time at Mr. Hercules Brown’s Home, Somerville, Maine (1944); Grease Plant Worker, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1946); Car Loaded with Furniture on Highway (1945); and Ferry Commuters, Staten Island, N.Y. (1946).
Parks renewed his search for photography jobs in the fashion world. Following his resignation from the Office of War Information, Parks moved to Harlem and became a freelance fashion photographer for Vogue under the editorship of Alexander Liberman. Despite racist attitudes of the day, Vogue editor, Liberman, hired him to shoot a collection of evening gowns. Parks photographed fashion for Vogue for the next few years and he developed the distinctive style of photographing his models in motion rather than poised. During this time, he published his first two books, Flash Photography (1947) and Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture (1948).
A 1948 photographic essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with America’s leading photo-magazine, Life. His involvement with Life would last until 1972. For over 20 years, Parks produced photographs on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway, poverty, and racial segregation, as well as portraits of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, and Barbra Streisand. He became “one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States.”
His photographs for Life magazine, namely his 1956 photo essay, titled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” illuminated the effects of racial segregation while simultaneously following the everyday lives and activities of three families in and near Mobile, Alabama: the Thronton’s, Causey’s, and Tanner’s. As curators at the High Museum of Art Atlanta note, while Parks’ photo essay served as decisive documentation of the Jim Crow South and all of its effects, he did not simply focus on demonstrations, boycotts, and brutality that were associated with that period instead, however, he “emphasized the prosaic details” of the lives of several families.
An exhibition of photographs from a 1950 project Parks completed for Life was exhibited in 2015 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Parks returned to his hometown, Fort Scott, Kansas, where segregation persisted, and he documented conditions in the community and the contemporary lives of many of his eleven classmates from the segregated middle school they attended. The project included his commentary, but the work was never published by Life.
During his years with Life, Parks also wrote a few books on the subject of photography (particularly documentary photography), and in 1960 was named Photographer of the Year by the American Society of Magazine Photographers.
In the 1950s, Parks worked as a consultant on various Hollywood productions. He later directed a series of documentaries on black ghetto life that were commissioned by National Educational Television. With his film adaptation of his autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree in 1969, Parks became Hollywood’s first major black director. It was filmed in his home town of Fort Scott, Kansas. Parks also wrote the screenplay and composed the musical score for the film, with assistance from his friend, the composer Henry Brant.
Shaft, a 1971 detective film directed by Parks and starring Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, became a major hit that spawned a series of films that would be labeled as, blaxploitation. The blaxploitation genre was one in which negative stereotypes of black males being involved with drugs, violence and women, were exploited for commercially successful films featuring black actors. Parks’ feel for settings was confirmed by Shaft, with its portrayal of the super-cool leather-clad, black private detective hired to find the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem racketeer.
Parks also directed the 1972 sequel, Shaft’s Big Score, in which the protagonist finds himself caught in the middle of rival gangs of racketeers. Parks’s other directorial credits include The Super Cops (1974) and Leadbelly (1976), a biopic of the blues musician Huddie Ledbetter. In the 1980s, he made several films for television and composed the music and a libretto for Martin, a ballet tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., which premiered in Washington, D.C. during 1989. It was screened on national television on King’s birthday in 1990.
In 2000, as an homage, he had a cameo appearance in the Shaft sequel that starred Samuel L. Jackson in the title role as the namesake and nephew of the original John Shaft. In the cameo scene, Parks was sitting playing chess when Jackson greeted him as, “Mr. P.”.
His first job was as a piano player in a brothel when he was a teenager. Parks also performed as a jazz pianist. His song “No Love”, composed in another brothel, was performed during a national radio broadcast by Larry Funk and his orchestra in the early 1930s.
Parks composed Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1953) at the encouragement of black American conductor, Dean Dixon, and his wife Vivian, a pianist, and with the help of the composer Henry Brant. He completed Tree Symphony in 1967. In 1989, he composed and directed Martin, a ballet dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader who had been assassinated.
Starting in the late-1940s, Parks began writing—a second career that would produce 15 books and lead to his role as a prominent black filmmaker—starting with books on the art and craft of photography. Beginning in the 1960s, Parks branched out into literature, writing The Learning Tree (1963). He authored several books of poetry, which he illustrated with his own photographs, and he wrote three volumes of memoirs.
In 1981, Parks turned to fiction with Shannon, a novel about Irish immigrants fighting their way up the social ladder in turbulent early 20th-century New York. Parks’ writing accomplishments include novels, poetry, autobiography, and non-fiction that includes photographic instructional manuals and film-making books. During this period, Parks also wrote the poem “The Funeral”.
Parks’ photography-related abstract oil paintings were showcased in a 1981 exhibition at Alex Rosenberg Gallery in New York titled “Gordon Parks: Expansions: The Aesthetic Blend of Painting and Photography.”
Parks was a co-founder of Essence magazine and served as its editorial director during the first three years of its circulation.