History of photography
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchannan Parks
(November 30, 1912 – March 7, 2006) was a groundbreaking American
photographer, musician, poet, novelist, journalist, activist and
film director. He is best remembered for his photo essays for Life
magazine and as the director of the 1971 film Shaft.
The youngest of 15 children, Parks was born into a poor, black
family in segregated Fort Scott, Kansas. His mother, a staunch
Methodist, was the main influence on his life, refusing to allow her
son to justify failure with the excuse that he had been born black,
and instilling in him self-confidence, ambition and a capacity for
When Parks was 15 years old, as said in his book "A Hungry Heart",
his mother died. Soon after her death his father sent him to live
with his married sister in St. Paul, Minnesota. He and his
brother-in-law did not get along; he only lived there for a few
weeks until he got in a fight with his brother-in-law, getting him
evicted. He was forced to sleep in trolley cars, loiter in pool
halls, and play piano in a brothel. Parks also worked as a factotum
in a whites-only club and as a waiter on a luxury train.
Parks later commented: “I had a mother who would not allow me to
complain about not accomplishing something because I was black. Her
attitude was, ‘If a white boy can do it, then you can do it, too—and
do it better, or don’t come home.’”
In 1938, Parks was struck by photographs of migrant workers in a
magazine and bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brilliant, for
$12.50 at a pawnshop.The photo clerks who developed Parks' first
roll of film, applauded his work and prompted him to get a fashion
assignment at Frank Murphy's women's clothing store in St. Paul.
Parks double exposed every frame except one, but that shot caught
the eye of Marva Louis, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis'
elegant wife. She encouraged Parks to move to Chicago, where he
began a portrait business for society women.
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. Working as a trainee under
Roy Stryker, Parks created one of his best known photographs,
American Gothic, Washington, D.C. (named after Grant Wood painting
American Gothic). The photo shows a black woman, Ella Watson, who
worked on the cleaning crew for the FSA building, standing stiffly
in front of an American flag, a broom in one hand and a mop in the
background. Parks had been inspired to create the picture after
encountering repeated racism in restaurants and shops, following his
arrival in Washington, D.C.. Upon viewing it, Stryker said that it
was an indictment of America, and could get all of his photographers
fired; he urged Parks to keep working with Watson, however, leading
to a series of photos of her daily life. Parks, himself, said later
that the first image was unsubtle and overdone; nonetheless, 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 Watson.
After the FSA disbanded, Parks remained in Washington as a
correspondent with the Office of War Information, but became
disgusted with the prejudice he encountered and resigned in 1944.
Moving to Harlem, Parks became a freelance fashion photographer for
Vogue. He later followed Stryker to the Standard Oil (New Jersey)
Photography Project, which assigned photographers to take pictures
of small towns and industrial centers. Parks's most striking of the
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.
Despite racist attitudes of the day, Vogue editor Alexander Liberman
hired him to shoot a collection of evening gowns. Parks photographed
fashion for Vogue for the next few years. During this time, he
published his first two books, Flash Photography (1947) and Camera
Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture
A 1948 photo essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff
job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine. For 20 years,
Parks produced photos on subjects including fashion, sports,
Broadway, poverty, racial segregation, and portraits of Malcolm X,
Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, and Barbra Streisand. His 1961
photo essay on a poor Brazilian boy named Flavio da Silva, who was
dying from bronchial pneumonia and malnutrition, brought donations
that saved the boy's life and paid for a new home for his family.
In the 1950s, Parks worked as a consultant on various Hollywood
productions and later directed a series of documentaries
commissioned by National Educational Television on black ghetto
Beginning in the 1960s, Parks branched out into literature, writing
The Learning Tree (1963), several books of poetry illustrated with
his own photographs, and three volumes of memoirs.
In 1969, Parks became Hollywood's first major black director with
his film adaptation of his autobiographical novel, The Learning
Tree. Parks also composed the film's musical score and wrote the
Shaft, Parks' 1971 detective film starring Richard Roundtree, became
a major hit that spawned a series of blaxploitation films. 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 included The Super
Cops (1974), and Leadbelly (1976), a biopic of the blues musician
In the 1980s, he made several films for television and composed the
music and libretto for Martin, a ballet tribute to Martin Luther
King, Jr., which premiered in Washington, D.C. in 1989 and was
screened on national television on King's birthday in 1990.
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 including
photographic instructional manuals and filmmaking books. Parks also
wrote a poem called "The Funeral".
A self-taught pianist, Parks composed Concerto for Piano and
Orchestra (1953) and Tree Symphony (1967). In 1989, he composed and
choreographed Martin, a ballet dedicated to civil rights leader
Martin Luther King, Jr. Parks also performed as a jazz pianist.
Parks was also a campaigner for civil rights; subject of film and
print profiles, notably Half Past Autumn in 2000; and had a gallery
exhibit of his photo-related, abstract oil paintings in 1981.
Parks was married and divorced three times. His wives were Sally
Alvis, Elizabeth Campbell and Genevieve Young, a book editor whom he
married in 1973 and divorced in 1979. For many years, Parks was
romantically involved with the railroad heiress and designer Gloria
Parks lived at the fashionable New York address of 860 United
Nations Plaza on the east side.
Gordon Parks died of cancer at the age of 93.
Housewife, Washington, D.C. 1942
American Gothic, 1942
Red Jackson and Herbie Levy Study Wounds of Slain Gang Member
Maurice Gaines, 1948
Paris Fashion, 1950
Ingrid Bergman at Stromboli, 1949
James Galanos Fashion, circa 1967
Flavio da Silva Rio de Janeiro, 1961
Spanish Fashion, 1950
Beggar Woman and Child, Estoril, Portugal, 1950
Death Room, Fort Scott, 1949
The Fontanelle Family
Bessie and Kenneth, Little Richard, Norman Jr. and Ellen
at the Poverty Board in New York City, 1967
Ethel Shariff in Chicago, 1963
A Memory, 1993
Dinner Time at Mr. Hercules Brown's Home
Somerville, Maine, 1944
Birmingham, Alabama, 1956
Malcolm X Addressing Black Muslim Family Rally in Chicago, 1963
New York, 1960
Toward Infinity, 1995
Muhammad Ali, 1970
Front Cover, A Star For Noon
Ella Watson, right, and her adopted daughter.
Ella Watson's adopted daughter.
Reverend Gassaway stands in a bowl of sacred water banked with the
roses that he blesses and gives to celebrants.
Ella Watson receiving a blessing and anointment from Reverend Smith;
a second exposure depicts another celebrant...
Langston Hughes, Chicago
Ella Watson and her Grandchildren
Beggar Man, Paris
Drugstore Cowboys, Blind River, Ontario
Chain Gang, Alabama
Still Life, New York
Muhammad Ali in Training, Miami, Florida
Norman Jr. Reading in Bed