Gordon Parks

Photojournalist and 'Shaft' director


Gordon Parks, photographer, film-maker, writer and composer: born Fort Scott, Kansas 30 November 1912; three times married (one son, two daughters, and one son deceased); died New York 7 March 2006.

When Gordon Parks made a photographic portrait in 1942 of Ella Watson, a cleaner in a Washington office building, he "experienced a kind of bigotry and discrimination here that I had never expected to experience," he said.

At first, I asked her about her life, what it was like, and [it was] so disastrous that I felt I must photograph this woman in a way that would make me feel or make the public feel about what Washington DC was like in 1942. So I put her before the American flag with a broom in one hand and a mop in the other. And I said "American Gothic"- that's how I felt at the moment. I didn't care what anyone else felt. That's what I felt about America and Ella Watson's position inside America.

Parks went on to become one of the United States' most distinguished photojournalists, travelling the world in search of images to present to the American public, as well as a composer, novelist, poet and a groundbreaking film-maker - with The Learning Tree (1969) he was credited as the first black person to direct a major studio film, and he gave America John Shaft, its first black action hero, in Shaft (1971).

But Parks was a modest and unassuming man. However famous he became as a photographer (and at Life magazine, where he worked for many years, egos were legendary), his attitude towards himself and his craft was always humble. "The photographer begins to feel big and bloated and so big that he can't walk through one of these doors - but the important people are the people he photographs." His career was to be one of "firsts", blazing a trail, at an inordinately difficult time for Afro-Americans, for the participation of black people in a profession not known for its inclusiveness.

Gordon Parks was born in Kansas in 1912, one of 15 children of a poor rural farmer and a devoutly Methodist mother. It was, he remembered with typical understatement (in a 1998 interview) "rather a meagre existence". Though Parks's mother died when he was 15, the values which he inherited from her were to be the mainstay of his personality, "enough," he remarked, "to carry me for the rest of my life . . . she taught me what was right and what was wrong. She would not tolerate any prejudice against another person because of their colour."

After his mother's death, Parks moved to his sister's home in St Paul, Minnesota, where he went to school until 1928. A career in the traditional professions was not an option, and he took on a multitude of jobs, from waiter to piano player. For Parks, photography was a lifeline, a passageway from obscurity and prejudice to fame and distinction.

His career as a photojournalist had unlikely beginnings. From 1937, he worked as a fashion photographer for a St Paul department store, honing his skills and absorbing the central tenets of a successful photographic practice - the ability to work with others, to work quickly, and to satisfy the demands of the client. Encouragement from Marva Louis (wife of the boxer Joe Louis) resulted in a move to Chicago, where he continued fashion and society photography.

This wide-ranging experience proved invaluable when Parks was signed as one of the élite group of photographers working for Roy Stryker's Farm Security Administration project, documenting the rural poor of the American dustbowl. Stryker was a formidable taskmaster, demanding that photographers work to a ferocious timetable and a highly detailed schedule of image-making. When Stryker moved to the Standard Oil Company, Parks went with him, photographing throughout the United States.

Like many photographers of his generation, Parks put his skills at the service of the US government during the Second World War, serving (again under Stryker's direction) in the Office of War Information from 1943-45. But it was after the end of of the war that his career took on international importance, with his work as a Life photojournalist and contributor stretching from 1948 to the 1970s.

Parks was Life's first Afro-American photographer and as such was able to photograph people and communities suspicious of the US journalistic establishment. He made a story in 1948 which looked at gang wars in Harlem from the perspective of a young gang leader. Parks befriended Red Jackson, and was given unparalleled access to the young black community of New York. When he photographed the Black Muslims and the Black Panthers movements in the Sixties, Parks remembered that "Life had tried without me at first - they sent white photographers, but they couldn't get into the groups. So both of them realised that they had to trust me."

Though Parks became famous for his stories on segregation in the Deep South, the rise of a new Afro-American politics, he was determined to work across the wide sphere of mainstream photojournalism and by the early Sixties was successful enough to become an independent photographer and film-maker, working for magazines which included Show, Vogue and Venture, and for film companies such as Warner Bros/Seven Arts, MGM and Paramount. In 1963 he published a semi-autobiographical novel The Learning Tree, which documented the experience of a young black man growing up in the American Midwest. With growing awareness of Afro-American issues and audiences, Warner Bros commissioned Parks not only to adapt his novel into a screenplay, but also to produce and direct the film.

His career as a film-maker and producer expanded rapidly after the release of The Learning Tree. Shaft premiered in 1971 and was an immediate success, blazing a trail for a new kind of film about Afro-American life, looking at organised crime in the deprived cities. Portrayed by the actor Richard Roundtree, Parks's hero, the private detective John Shaft, became a star in the firmament of American characters. But the success of Shaft was not repeated and although Parks made films for TV as well as the sequel Shaft's Big Score! (1972), critical attention was directed at his photography during the coming decades.

When Life magazine closed in the early 1970s, Parks continued to write, compose, make photographs and to contribute to solo and group exhibitions. Major retrospectives of his work took place from the mid-Eighties onwards and his work was included in the international group exhibitions Memorable Life Photographs at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1951, Photography in the 20th Century at the National Gallery of Canada in 1967 and American Images at the Barbican Art Gallery in 1985.

In 1992, Parks attended the opening of an exhibition of his work organised by the Daytona Beach Community College. In 1943, he had photographed the black community of Daytona Beach for the Office of War Information. He remembered that he had found the racism "intolerable". When he returned, Parks was struck by the difference between the two visits: "I thought I would never come back. Now, how drastic a change. Now I'm accepted with open arms."

Val Williams

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