Gordon Parks, genius at work

by Malaika H Kambon

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks (1912 – 2006), pre-eminent photographer, musician, activist, filmmaker and writer, would have been 103 years old this year. This is not as outlandish a figure as it might seem, given that there have recently been a flood of centenarians living well into the turn of the next century. But did you know that he was born dead? Watch the wonderful documentary (below), “Half Past Autumn: The Life and work of Gordon Parks,” to find out more!

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“Emerging Man,” New York 1952 – Photo: Gordon Parks. All photographs are courtesy of the Library of Congress and the Gordon Parks Foundation.

Mr. Parks was born during a time when Jim Crow laws of segregation and racial hatred were in full swing. After nearly 100 years, that hasn’t changed much either. For those who may not know:

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Muhammad Ali, Miami 1966 – Photo: Gordon Parks

“Jim Crow was the name of the racial caste system that operated primarily, but not exclusively in Southern and border states, between 1877 and the mid-1960s,” according to Ferris State University. “Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-Black laws. It was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African Americans were relegated to the status of second-class citizens.

“Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-Black racism. Many Christian ministers and theologians taught that whites were the chosen people, Blacks were cursed to be servants, and God supported racial segregation. Craniologists, eugenicists, phrenologists and Social Darwinists at every educational level buttressed the belief that Blacks were innately intellectually and culturally inferior to whites.

“Pro-segregation politicians gave eloquent speeches on the great danger of integration: the mongrelization of the white race. Newspaper and magazine writers routinely referred to Blacks as niggers, coons and darkies; and worse, their articles reinforced anti-Black stereotypes. Even children’s games portrayed Blacks as inferior beings (see “From Hostility to Reverence: 100 Years of African-American Imagery in Games”). All major societal institutions reflected and supported the oppression of Blacks.”

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Gordon Parks, 1980s – Photo: Toni Parks

Signs prohibiting dogs, Negroes and Mexicans in public places were the norm. Colored was a pejorative term – along with many that were nastier and more repugnant – used to indicate where African people were “allowed” under penalty of death – to eat, sleep, sit, live, play – and with whom – or not. Black people were denied the right to vote, alleged “separate but equal” laws were established for schools, transportation, public restrooms. Teachers were fined for teaching in those rare institutions where whites and Blacks were in the same school. Lynch laws were viciously, publicly, sadistically state-sanctioned murders of Blacks by mobs of whites. This is the U.S. that the genius of Gordon Parks was born into.

But Blacks fought back – then and now. Some of us were able to live without being enslaved. Some of us, such as Augustus Washington, daguerreotypist, prospered, were activists, used our art and our activism to make a living, and then returned to our mother country of Africa. Some of us fought and continue to fight – and have paid with our lives.

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“Chiffon,” Hollywood 1961, dress by designer James Galanos – Photo: Gordon Parks

“The notion that the Civil Rights Movement in the Southern United States was a non-violent movement,” writes Dr. Akinyele Umoja, chair of African American Studies at Georgia State University, in the introduction to “We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement,” “remains a dominant theme of civil rights memory and representation in popular culture. Yet in dozens of Southern communities, Black people picked up arms to defend their leaders, communities and lives. In particular, Black people relied on armed self-defense in communities where federal government officials failed to safeguard activists and supporters from the violence of racists and segregationists, who were often supported by local law enforcement.

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“Woman and Dog in Window,” Harlem 1943 – Photo: Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks’ fight began with his mother. His mama told him from birth, “What a white boy can do, you can too – and no excuses.” And even though his mother had passed away by the time he was 16 years of age, he fought poverty and virulent racism to become one of the seminal figures of 20th century photography. Predominantly self-taught, he is described by Ann Parr in “Gordon Parks: No Excuses” as having been “a humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice.”

From his first job as a pianist in a brothel, Mr. Parks’ prolific career spans six decades as photographer, musician, novelist, filmmaker – director and producer – and activist.

His first professional position, held under the guidance of Roy Stryker, director of the Farm Security Administration, furnished the groundwork for one of his most iconic, recognizable and important pieces, the photograph of Ella Watson from this period, known as “American Gothic.” As an activist even during the 1940s, Parks exposed racism and fought for human rights using his camera. While working for the U.S. Office of War Information and Standard Oil of New Jersey, he began to study photographs, visit art museums, and buy books with which to study photography using light and shadows.

As an activist even during the 1940s, Parks exposed racism and fought for human rights using his camera.

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Football at Bethune Cookman College, Daytona Beach, 1943 – Photo: Gordon Parks

This helped to propel him into his position as the first African American photographer for Life magazine in 1948. But before that, he photographed goods and models in downtown department stores in St. Paul, Minnesota, Chicago’s poor living in boxes, New York’s children begging for food. Kodak camera displayed his work in their windows.

His photos helped him to win awards to study in Washington, D.C., with famous photographers. Afterwards, knowing that Life magazine had not ever hired a Black photographer, he walked into the photo editor’s office anyway, convinced him to look at his work, and was hired, despite editor Wilson Hicks’ initial rejection due to his being Black.

He would remain with Life magazine for 25 years, producing “photo essays on an exceptionally broad range of topics, including gang wars in Harlem, fashion in Paris and segregation in the American South, before embarking on his successful career as film director. He was also an accomplished portraitist, capturing now-famous images of Ingrid Bergman, Alberto Giacometti, Gloria Vanderbilt, Duke Ellington, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali,” writes Parr.

Anacostia-Dance-Group’-Frederick-Douglass-Housing-Project-Washington-D.C.-1942-by-Gordon-Parks-300x238, Gordon Parks, genius at work, Culture Currents
“Anacostia Dance Group,” Frederick Douglass Housing Project, Washington, D.C., 1942 – Photo: Gordon Parks

Some of his photographic essays, using his “weapon of choice,” as Mr. Parks would say, in the struggle against racism and segregation, were prosaic. Others showed Black survival under Jim Crow to be as intense and unjust as it is: deep poverty, can’t see to can’t see labor, the just-us caste, class and racial hatred fostered by the criminalization and marginalization of an entire people.

But above all, Gordon Parks was a fierce documentarian. And he used his images on the battlefield – even though he also photographed Paris fashion models with equal equanimity. More importantly, his photography gained fame for him and attention to the subjects he felt were important and should be noticed. He wrote about and photographed the child Flavio de Silva’s fight to keep his family of 10 alive in the Catacumba slums in Rio de Janeiro, which resulted in $30,000 being donated to move the family to a better home and get them started in a new life.

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“On Seaton Road,” Washington, D.C., June 1942. The boy’s leg was cut off by a street car as he played in the street. – Photo: Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks’ importance to the genre of fashion photography is now beyond question. Of his fashion assignments, it was evident that Gordon Parks had an awareness of how fashion and design shaped ideas about femininity and desire and revealed an eye for both photography and the designer’s craft: Chanel’s comfortable clothes, Molyneux designs for elegance and grace, Schiaperelli’s play with different colors, Dior’s “New York look” in his very feminine gowns, the perfection of Balenciaga, the flirtatious, witty sexiness of Jacques Fath’s evening dresses.

But he remembered the contrasts too. “I had been given assignments I had never expected to earn,” he said, quoted in the 2012 New York Times story, “The Fashionable Mr. Parks.” “Some proved to be as different as silk and iron. Once, crime and fashion was served to me on the same day. The color of a Dior gown I photographed one afternoon turned out to be the same color as the blood of a murdered gang member I had photographed earlier that morning up in Harlem.”

He photographed the Black Power Movement in the 1960s, when no white photographer could. He told the stories of hundreds who had no food, water, electricity and/or jobs. He photographed gang wars in Harlem.

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A trio of musicians from Duke Ellington’s orchestra, NY – Photo: Gordon Parks

He photographed life. He made movies – “Shaft” and “Shaft’s Big Score.” He wrote “The Learning Tree,” a biography of his life, which also became a movie. And he proved white America wrong. As writer Thulani Davis observed , white Americans, in the civil rights era, had little awareness that Black people “lived in a complete universe.” In our private lives “we were whole. We enjoyed a richness that the mainstream almost never showed, but that we took for granted just as white people did.”

Debra Willis, a MacArthur Fellow, photographer, professor of photography, documentarian and author-historian at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, is collaborating with the Gordon Parks Foundation on a five-book series about the prolific career of Gordon Parks. She echoes Thulani Davis when she writes in the introduction to “Black: A Celebration of a Culture”:

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“American Gothic,” Ella Watson, charwoman at the Farm Service Administration, 1942 – Photo: Gordon Parks

“In constructing a Black-culture photo story through collective memory … I thought about photographers’ works that focus on Black life, photographs that celebrate and tell a story about everyday life … that explored, documented and reinforced common cultures within African American communities, whether through style of dress or through celebrations … We are all familiar with images of the struggle for equal rights in America, which document an important aspect of the American experience, but I wondered about the photographs that show how photographers recorded what people do on Saturday night and Sunday morning, and the ways in which we all commemorate family or cultural events.”

A giant in the key of life passed away from cancer on March 7, 2006, in New York City. He was 93 years young. In his lifetime, he gave much to his community and to the world.

Parks spent much of the last three decades of his life expanding his style, conducting experiments with color photography. He continued working until his death in 2006, winning numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts in 1988, and over 50 honorary doctorates. He was also a noted composer and author and, in 1969, became the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film based on his bestselling novel “The Learning Tree.”

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Students at Bethune Cookman College, Daytona Beach1943 – Photo: Gordon Parks

This was followed in 1971 by the hugely successful motion picture “Shaft.” The core of his accomplishment, however, remains his photography – the scope, quality and enduring national significance of which is reflected throughout the collection. According to Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Center at Harvard University: “Gordon Parks is the most important Black photographer in the history of photojournalism. Long after the events that he photographed have been forgotten, his images will remain with us, testaments to the genius of his art, transcending time, place and subject matter.”

“Gordon Parks is the most important Black photographer in the history of photojournalism. Long after the events that he photographed have been forgotten, his images will remain with us, testaments to the genius of his art, transcending time, place and subject matter.”

Gordon Parks was the quintessential genius. His heart told his feet which roads to take. He read the signposts giving out directions, questioned them – but didn’t ignore them – thereby making each one count for something grand.

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Malcolm X 1962-63: “If you’re not ready to die for it, take the word freedom out of your vocabulary.” – Photo: Gordon Parks

Films and books

“Flavio,” 1964. Director and screenplay

“Diary of a Harlem Family,” 1968. Narrator, still photography

“The World of Piri Thomas,” 1968. 16mm. Director

“The Learning Tree,” 1969. 35mm. Director, producer, screenplay, music

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“Willie Causey Jr. with gun during violence in Alabama,” Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956 – Photo: Gordon Parks

“Shaft,” 1971. 35mm. Director

“Shaft’s Big Score!” 1972. 35mm. Director

“The Super Cops,” 1974. 35mm. Director

“Leadbelly,” 1976. 35mm. Director

“Solomon Northup’s Odyssey,” 1984. 16mm, made for TV. Director, screenplay

“Moments Without Proper Names,” 1987. 16mm. Director, screenplay, music

“Flash Photography,” 1947. Grosset and Dunlap.

“Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture,” 1948. F. Watts

“The Learning Tree,” 1963. Harper and Row

“A Choice of Weapons,” 1966. Harper and Row

“Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera,” 1968. Viking Press

“Born Black,” 1971. Lippincott

“Gordon Parks: In Love,” 1971. Lippincott

“Gordon Parks: Whispers of Intimate Things,” 1971. Viking Press

“Moments Without Proper Names,” 1975. Viking Press

“Flavio,” 1978. W.W. Norton

“To Smile in Autumn,” 1979. W.W. Norton

“Shannon,” 1981. Little, Brown

“Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography,” 1990. Doubleday

“Arias of Silence,” 1994. Bulfinch Press

“Glimpses Toward Infinity,” 1996. Little, Brown

“Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective,” 1997. Bulfinch Press

“A Star for Noon: An Homage to Women in Images, Poetry, and Music,” 2000. Bulfinch Press

“The Sun Stalker,” 2003. Ruder-Finn Press

“Eyes With Winged Thoughts,” 2005. Atria

“A Hungry Heart,” 2005. Washington Square Press

The-Fontenelles-at-the-Poverty-Board’-Harlem-1967-Bessie-Fontenelle-told-Parks-there-was-‘no-job-for-her-husband-no-heat-or-electricity-in-their-apartment-and-no-food-for-her-children’-by-Gordon-Parks-300x206, Gordon Parks, genius at work, Culture Currents
“The Fontenelles at the Poverty Board,” Harlem 1967. Bessie Fontenelle told Parks there was “no job for her husband, no heat or electricity in their apartment, and no food for her children.” – Photo: Gordon Parks


Happy Hundreth Birthday, Gordon Parks,” by James Pomerantz, Photo Booth, The New Yorker, Nov. 30, 2012

Gordon Parks, a Master of the Camera, Dies at 93” by Andy Grundberg, New York Times

Gordon Parks: A Radically Prosaic Approach to Civil Rights Images” by Maurice Berger, New York Times

“Black: A Celebration of a Culture” by Deborah Willis

“We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement” Omowale Akinyele by Omowale Akinyele Umoja

“Gordon Parks: No Excuses” by Ann Parr, 2006

Biography” by the Gordon Parks Foundation

What Was Jim Crow?” by the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memoribilia, Ferris State University

Malaika H Kambon is a freelance, multi-award winning photojournalist and owner of People’s Eye Photography. She is also an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) state and national champion in Tae Kwon Do from 2007-2012. She can be reached at kambonrb@pacbell.net.