Gordon Parks was more than just a photographer. He was a composer, author, poet, and film director who used his artistic talents to document and challenge the injustices of his time. As one of the most influential photojournalists in the United States, he captured the beauty and dignity of his subjects, as well as the harsh realities of racism, poverty, and violence.
Parks was born in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of fifteen children. He faced discrimination and hardship from an early age, losing his mother when he was fourteen and being thrown into a river by white boys who assumed he could not swim. He taught himself how to use a camera after being inspired by the photographs of migrant workers in a magazine. He soon won a fellowship that allowed him to work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a government agency that documented the social conditions of the country during the Great Depression.
Parks’s photographs for the FSA showed his ability to empathize with his subjects and convey their stories with compassion and honesty. One of his most famous images, American Gothic (1942), depicts Ella Watson, a black woman who worked as a charwoman in a government building in Washington, D.C. Parks posed her in front of an American flag, holding a broom and a mop, to contrast the ideals of the nation with the realities of its marginalized citizens1.
Parks left the FSA in 1944 and worked as a freelance photographer for various magazines, including Glamour and Ebony. He also photographed prominent figures in the African American community, such as writer Richard Wright, singer Marian Anderson, and boxer Joe Louis. In 1948, he became the first black staff photographer for Life magazine, where he worked for two decades. He covered a wide range of topics, from fashion and entertainment to sports and politics. He also took on assignments that explored the issues of civil rights, segregation, and poverty in America and abroad.
Some of his most memorable photo essays for Life include Harlem Gang Leader (1948), which followed the life of a 17-year-old gang leader named Red Jackson; Back to Fort Scott (1950), which revisited his hometown and his childhood classmates; Invisible Man (1952), which illustrated scenes from Ralph Ellison’s novel of the same name; Segregation in the South (1956), which exposed the daily struggles of black families living under Jim Crow laws; The Learning Tree (1963), which was based on his own autobiographical novel; and Flavio (1961), which portrayed the life of a poor Brazilian boy suffering from asthma.
Parks was not only a master of still photography, but also a pioneer of motion pictures. He became the first black director to helm a major Hollywood film when he adapted his novel The Learning Tree into a movie in 19692. He also created Shaft (1971) and Shaft’s Big Score (1972), two films that launched the blaxploitation genre and featured one of the most iconic characters in cinema history: John Shaft, a Black private detective who fought crime in New York City.
Parks was also a prolific writer and composer who published several books of poetry, fiction, and memoirs. He also composed music for his films and other projects, including a ballet called Martin (1989), which honored Martin Luther King Jr. He received numerous awards and honours for his achievements, including the National Medal of Arts (1988), the Spingarn Medal (1972), and several honorary degrees3.
Parks died in 2006 at the age of 93, leaving behind an exceptional legacy that continues to inspire generations of artists and activists. His work is preserved by The Gordon Parks Foundation4, which also supports educational and artistic activities that advance his vision of social justice. As Parks himself said, “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”1