Gordon Parks has been recognized as a poet of the camera. He was not only a great American photographer, but also a writer, composer and motion picture director. He was the first African-American to produce and direct major motion pictures – developing films relating to 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
Young Gordon was born into poverty at Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912, the youngest of 15 children. His father was a farmer, Andrew Jackson Parks, who was an extremely quiet man; his mother, Sarah Ross, was a strong, energetic woman. Gordon’s life changed dramatically at age 15 when his mother died.
Soon afterwards, he was sent to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with a sister and her husband. He and his brother-in-law argued frequently, and Parks was finally turned out onto the street to fend for himself, still only 15. Struggling to survive, he worked in brothels, and as a singer, piano player, bus boy, waiter, railroad porter, and a 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 Wall Street collapsed in 1929, which brought an end to the club, Parks jumped a train to Chicago, where he managed to land a job in a flophouse.
Over the next few years, Parks wrote music, married his sweetheart, Sally, and continued moving from job to job. In the late 1930s, he took up photography. While taking photos of society women for a living, Parks also photographed scenes of poverty in Chicago's black neighborhoods. This painfully realistic work won him a fellowship with the Farm Security Administration, the first of many photography awards he would go on to collect.
During World War II, Parks became a correspondent for the United States Office of Information. Following the war, he landed a position as a staff photographer for Life magazine. But he continued to write music – a piano concerto, which was first performed in Vienna, Austria in 1953, and three piano sonatas in Philadelphia in 1955.
He wrote “The Learning Tree,” a novel based on something he knew very well, his youth in Fort Scott, Kansas, which was published in 1963. It was later made into a movie, which he directed. He also wrote the screenplay and the music for “The Learning Tree.”
“A Choice of Weapons” in 1966, was an autobiography of his life between the ages of 16 and 32. He narrated the television version, which was titled “The Weapons of Gordon Parks” in 1968.
He published several poetry-and-photography books, and probably the best of those was “Whispers of Intimate Things” in 1971. His “Born Black,” also published in 1971, contained observations on black leaders in the United States – particularly in issues of civil rights, poverty and African-Americans, which included much material that he had put together for Life magazine.
In the 1970s he directed motion pictures, including what he is probably best remembered for, the 1971 film “Shaft,” about a black detective. The song “Shaft” from the movie hit the Top 40 charts.
Parks married three times – first to Sally Alvis in 1933; then to Elizabeth Campbell, a fashion model, in 1963; and then to Genevieve Young, his literary editor in 1973. Gordon Parks passed away on March 7, 2006.
Reference: Karen Haas, “Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott,” Steidl, 2015.
Reach Ted W. Stillwell at Ted@blueandgrey.com or 816-896-3592.