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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker