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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 hard work.
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
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 (1948).
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
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 life.
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 screenplay.
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 Huddie
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
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 Vanderbilt.
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.