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Gordon Parks

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Subject: Shaft (1971 film), Leadbelly (film), Farm Security Administration, POTD/2007-01-31, POTD protected/2007-01-31
Collection: 1912 Births, 2006 Deaths, African-American Artists, African-American Film Directors, African-American Male Actors, African-American Photographers, American Male Film Actors, American Photojournalists, Artists from Minnesota, Blaxploitation Film Directors, Cancer Deaths in New York, Fashion Photographers, Film Directors from Minnesota, Life (Magazine) Photojournalists, People from Fort Scott, Kansas, Portrait Photographers, Spingarn Medal Winners, United States National Medal of Arts Recipients, World Digital Library Related, Writers from Minnesota
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Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks
Born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks
(1912-11-30)November 30, 1912
Fort Scott, Kansas, United States
Died March 7, 2006(2006-03-07) (aged 93)
New York City, New York, United States
Known for
  • Photographer
  • writer
  • musician
  • film director
  • composer
Notable work Life photographic essays
The Learning Tree
Solomon Northup's Odyssey

NAACP Image Award (2003)
PGA Oscar Micheaux Award (1993)[1]

National Medal of Arts (1988)
Spingarn Medal (1972)

Gordon Parks (November 30, 1912 – March 7, 2006) was an American photographer, musician, writer and film director. He is best remembered for his photographic essays for Life magazine and as the director of the 1971 film Shaft.[2]


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
    • Photography 2.1
    • Film 2.2
    • Musician and composer 2.3
    • Writing 2.4
    • Painting 2.5
  • Personal life 3
  • Legacy 4
  • Exhibitions 5
  • Awards 6
  • Works 7
    • Books 7.1
    • Poetry and photography 7.2
    • Films 7.3
    • Music 7.4
  • Publications about Parks 8
  • Documentaries on or including Parks 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • Other sources 12
  • External links 13

Early life

Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, the son of Sarah (née Ross) and Jackson Parks.[3] He was the last child born to them. His father was a farmer who grew corn, beets, turnips, potatoes, collard greens, and tomatoes. They also had a few ducks, chickens, and hogs.[4]

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,[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] Soon after, he was sent to live with relatives. That situation ended with Parks being turned out onto the street to fend for himself.

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.[8] When the Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought an end to the club, he jumped a train to Chicago,[9] where he managed to land a job in a flophouse.[10]



At the age of 25, Parks was struck by photographs of migrant workers in a magazine and bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brillant, for $12.50 at a Seattle, Washington, pawnshop.[11] The photography clerks who developed Parks' 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, that was 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,[12] 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 Striker [13]

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).

American Gothic, Washington, D.C. – a well-known photograph by Parks

Working as a trainee under Roy Stryker, Parks created one of his best-known photographs, American Gothic, Washington, D.C.,[14] named after the iconic Grant Wood painting, American Gothic. The 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.

A later photograph in the FSA series by Parks shows Ella Watson and her family

Upon viewing the photograph, Stryker said that it was an indictment of America, and that it could get all of his photographers fired.[15] 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.[16]

After the FSA disbanded, Parks remained in Washington, D.C. as a correspondent with the Office of War Information.[17] Finally, disgusted with the prejudice he encountered, however, he resigned in 1944. Moving to Harlem, Parks became a freelance fashion photographer for Vogue. He later followed 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. Despite racist attitudes of the day, the Vogue editor, Alexander 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 Life magazine. For 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."[18]

His photographs for Life magazine, namely his 1956 photo essay, titled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,”[19] 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.[20] [21]

An exhibition of photographs from a 1950 project Parks completed for Life was exhibited in 2015 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.[22] He 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 never was published by Life.


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.[23] 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. 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.".

Musician and composer

His first job was as a piano player in a brothel when he was a teenager.[24] 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.[25]

Parks composed Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1953) at the encouragement of black American conductor, Dean Dixon, and his wife Vivian, a pianist,[26] and with the help of the composer Henry Brant.[27] 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.


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".


A gallery exhibition of his photography-related, abstract oil paintings was held in 1981.

Personal life

Parks was married and divorced three times. He married Sally Alvis in Minneapolis during 1933 [28] and they divorced in 1961. He married Elizabeth Campbell in 1962 and they divorced in 1973. Parks first met Chinese-American editor Genevieve Young (stepdaughter of Chinese diplomat Wellington Koo) in 1962 when he began writing The Learning Tree.[29] At that time, his publisher assigned her to be his editor. They became romantically involved at a time when they both were divorcing previous spouses, and married in 1973. They divorced in 1979. Candace Bushnell claims to have dated Parks in 1976, when she was 18 and he was 58.[30] For many years, Parks was romantically involved with Gloria Vanderbilt, the railroad heiress and designer.[31] Their relationship evolved into a deep friendship that endured throughout his lifetime.

Parks fathered four children: Gordon, Jr., David, Leslie, and Toni (Parks-Parsons). His oldest son Gordon Parks, Jr., whose talents resembled his father's, was killed in a plane crash in 1979 in Kenya, where he had gone to direct a film.[32][33] Parks has five grandchildren: Alain, Gordon III, Sarah, Campbell, and Satchel. Malcolm X honored Parks when he asked him to be the godfather of his daughter, Qubilah Shabazz.

He died of cancer at the age of 93 while living in Manhattan, New York City, and is buried in his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas.


Parks is remembered for photography, film making, music composition, and writing. He also is known for his activism and campaigning for civil rights. He was the first African American to work at Life magazine and the first to write, direct, and score a Hollywood film. He was profiled in the 1967 documentary The Weapons of Gordon Parks,[34] by American filmmaker Warren Forma.

Parks was a co-founder of Essence magazine. He was one of the early contributors to the style of movies that became known as the blaxploitation genre, in which negative stereotypes of black males being involved with drugs, violence and women, were exploited for commercially-successful films featuring black actors.

Parks said that freedom was the theme of all of his work. He described it as, "Not allowing anyone to set boundaries, cutting loose the imagination, and then making the new horizons."[14]

Parks' son, Gordon Parks, Jr. (1934–1979) also directed films, including Super Fly, Three the Hard Way, and Aaron Loves Angela. His career was cut short when he died in a plane crash in Africa.

In 1995 Parks announced that he would donate his papers and entire artistic collection to the Library of Congress and one year later, "The Gordon Parks Collection" was curated.


  • 1997: Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.. A career retrospective.
  • 2015: Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott, Boston Museum of Fine Arts.[22]
  • 2015: Gordon Parks: Segregation Story, [High Museum of Art Atlanta].[35][36]


Parks received more than 20 honorary doctorates in his lifetime.[37]

  • 1941: Awarded a fellowship for photography from the Rosenwald Fund. The fellowship allowed him to work with the Farm Security Administration.[38]
  • 1961: Named "Magazine Photographer of the Year" by the American Society of Magazine Photos.[38]
  • 1989: The United States Library of Congress deemed The Learning Tree "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" due to its being the first major studio feature film directed by an African American and the film was preserved in the United States National Film Registry.
  • 2000: The Congress Of Racial Equality Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • 2000: Library of Congress deemed Shaft to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", selecting it for NFR preservation as well
  • 2003: Royal Photographic Society's Special 150th Anniversary Medal and Honorary Fellowship (HonFRPS) in recognition of a sustained, significant contribution to the art of photography.[40]
  • 1999: Gordon Parks Elementary School, a nonprofit, K-5 grade public charter school in Kansas City, Missouri, was established to educate the urban-core inhabitants.[41]



  • Flash Photography (1947)
  • Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture (1948) (documentary)
  • The Learning Tree (1964) (semi-autobiographical)
  • A Choice of Weapons (1967) (autobiographical)
  • Born Black (1970) (compilation of essays and photographs)
  • To Smile in Autumn (1979) (autobiographical)
    • New edition with foreword by Alexs D. Pate. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009
  • Voices in the Mirror, New York: Doubleday (1990) (autobiographical)
  • The Sun Stalker (2003) (biography on J. M. W. Turner)
  • A Hungry Heart (2005) (autobiographical)

Poetry and photography

  • Gordon Parks: Elementary school
  • Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera
  • Gordon Parks: Whispers of Intimate Things
  • Gordon Parks: In Love
  • Gordon Parks: Moments Without Proper Names (1975)
  • Arias of Silence
  • Glimpses Toward Infinity
  • A Star for Noon – An Homage to Women in Images Poetry and Music (2000)
  • Eyes With Winged Thoughts (released November 1, 2005)
  • Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, memoir excerpts by Gordon Parks. Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown (1997) ISBN 0-8212-2298-8



  • Moments Without Proper Names (1987)
  • Martin (1989) (ballet about Martin Luther King)
  • Shaft's Big Score (1972)

Publications about Parks

  • Berry, S. L. Gordon Parks. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990. ISBN 1-55546-604-4
  • Bush, Martin H. The Photographs of Gordon Parks. Wichita, Kansas: Wichita State University, 1983.
  • Donloe, Darlene. Gordon Parks: Photographer, Writer, Composer, Film Maker [Melrose Square Black American series]. Los Angeles: Melrose Square Publishing Company, 1993. ISBN 0-87067-595-8
  • Harnan, Terry, and Russell Hoover. Gordon Parks: Black Photographer and Film Maker [Americans All series]. Champaign, Illinois: Garrard Publishing Company, 1972. ISBN 0-8116-4572-X
  • Parr, Ann, and Gordon Parks. Gordon Parks: No Excuses. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 2006. ISBN 1-58980-411-2
  • Stange, Maren. Bare Witness: photographs by Gordon Parks. Milan: Skira, 2006. ISBN 88-7624-802-1
  • Turk, Midge, and Herbert Danska. Gordon Parks. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1971. ISBN 0-690-33793-0

Documentaries on or including Parks

See also


  1. ^ "Gordon Parks, IMDb". 2009-05-01. Retrieved 2010-10-06. 
  2. ^ Grundberg, Andy (2006-03-08). "Gordon Parks, a Master of the Camera, Dies at 93". New York Times. 
  3. ^ "Gordon Parks Biography (1912–)". Retrieved 2010-10-06. 
  4. ^ Parks,1990, p. 6.
  5. ^ Parks, 1990, pp. 1–2.
  6. ^ Parks, 1990, p. 16.
  7. ^ Parks, 1990, pp. 12–13.
  8. ^ Parks,1990, pp. 26–27.
  9. ^ Parks, 1990, pp. 30–34.
  10. ^ Parks, 1990, p. 35.
  11. ^ Gordon Park, bio Gale Group.
  12. ^ Parks, 1990, p. 77.
  13. ^ Moskowitz, Gordon Parks: A Man for All Seasons, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 2003
  14. ^ a b Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb, "'Life' Photographer And 'Shaft' Director Broke Color Barriers", The Washington Post, March 8, 2006.
  15. ^ Eamonn McCabe (2006-03-10). "American beauty". The Guardian (G2). p. 8. 
  16. ^ Lawrence W. Levine (December 1992). "The Folklore of Industrial Society: Popular Culture and Its Audiences". The American Historical Review (American Historical Association) 97 (5): 1369–99.  
  17. ^ "Youngster, Clutching His Soldier Father, Gazes Upward While the Latter Lifts His Wife from the Ground to Wish Her a "Merry Christmas": The serviceman is one of those fortunate enough to be able to get home for the holidays".  
  18. ^  
  19. ^
  20. ^ Stange, Bare witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks, 2006
  21. ^ High Museum of Art Atlanta,
  22. ^ a b Kennedy, Randy, "‘A Long Hungry Look’: Forgotten Gordon Parks Photos Document Segregation", The New York Times, December 24, 2014 (with 11 images in a slide show); also published in print on December 28, 2014, p. AR1, the New York edition, with the headline, "A Long Hungry Look".
  23. ^ Parks, 1990, p. 278.
  24. ^ Parks, 1990, pp. 19–20.
  25. ^ Parks, 1990, p. 45.
  26. ^ Parks, 1990, p. 150.
  27. ^ Parks, 1990, p. 153.
  28. ^ Parks, 1990, p. 61.
  29. ^ Parks, 1990, p. 207.
  30. ^ "The Blonde Who's Had More Fun, p. 2 of 2". New York Magazine. 
  31. ^ "Gloria Vanderbilt + Gordon Parks". The New York Times. 
  32. ^ "Filmmaker Gordon Parks; victim of airplane crash", The Day, April 3, 1979.
  33. ^ Parks, 1990, p. 335.
  34. ^ "The Weapons of Gordon Parks", WorldCat.
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^ Parks, 1990, p. 326.
  38. ^ a b Chenrow, Fred; Chenrow, Carol (1973). Reading Exercises in Black History, Volume 1. Elizabethtown, PA: The Continental Press, Inc., p. 44. ISBN 08454-2107-7
  39. ^ Spingard Medal Winners
  40. ^ Royal Photographic Society's Centenary Award. Accessed 13 August 2012.
  41. ^ "Gordon Parks Elementary School |". 2010-10-02. Retrieved 2010-10-06. 
  42. ^ Alternative School in Saint Paul, MN named for Gordon Parks. Gordon Parks High School website.

Other sources

Primary source materials

Additional article length works

  • Director Guild of America profile

External links

  • Gordon Parks at the Internet Movie Database
  • The Gordon Parks Foundation
  • Gordon Parks Collection. Photograph and poetry exhibit in Gordon Parks' hometown
  • Some of his photography
  • Luminous-Lint page
  • Ordway Theater presents Gordon Parks in the VocalEssence Witness series
  • C-SPAN interview with Parks, discussing the exhibit "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks", November 25, 1997
  • PBS Newshour, January 6, 1998
  • Further biographical information can be found at the Thomson/Gale
  • Photo District News, Legends Online site for Gordon Parks
  • Gordon Parks' oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
  • Gordon Parks Gallery at Metropolitan State University, Saint Paul, Minnesota gallery devoted to preserving the legacy of Gordon Parks
  • Art Directors Club biography, portrait and images of work
  • Works by Gordon Parks at Open Library
  • The chapter entitled "Gordon Parks: A Versatile Titan Who Made His Name First As a Photojournalist" is included in this representative world photo-history The Photographic Spirit: Inspiring Photo Lives and Images, authored by David Joseph Marcou and published in 2013 online (La Crosse History Unbound website) and also in paperback.
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