Born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks, November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, KS; died of complications from high blood pressure and prostate cancer, March 7, 2006, in New York, NY. Photographer and director. A creative pioneer in several fields, Gordon Parks first became famous for his affecting photographs in the 1940s. He became the first black staff photographer at the prestigious Life magazine and eventually one of the most influential photographers of the mid-20th century. After 20 years chronicling the civil-rights movement and the suffering of the poor, he became Hollywood's first black director, producing a semi-autobiographical film and the classic black detective film Shaft . "No matter what medium he chose for his self-expression, he sought to challenge stereotypes while still communicating to a large audience," wrote Andy Grundberg of the New York Times . "In finding early acclaim as a photographer despite a lack of professional training, he became convinced that he could accomplish whatever he set his mind to. To an astonishing extent, he proved himself right."
The youngest of 15 children, Parks was born to Andrew Jackson Parks, a poor farmer, and his devout Methodist wife, Sarah, in Fort Scott, Kansas, a small segregated town. He attended a segregated elementary school and a high school where blacks were not allowed to play sports or attend social functions. He often recalled, later in life, that one of his teachers told black students not to go to college, since they were destined to become maids and porters.
Parks did not finish high school. His mother died when he was 15, and he went to live with an older sister and her husband in St. Paul, Minnesota. But his brother-in-law soon threw him out of the house after an argument, leaving him homeless. He briefly worked in a brothel as a piano player, but quit after one customer stabbed another in front of him. He worked as a bellboy at a club, then a hotel. Meanwhile, Parks was writing his own compositions. In 1932, a bandleader overheard him playing one of his songs on the piano in the hotel ballroom. The bandleader performed his song on a radio broadcast and invited him to join the band. Meanwhile, in 1933, Parks married Sally Alvis. They soon had a child, Gordon Jr. Parks toured with the band for about a year. When it broke up, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and worked clearing forest land.
By 1937, Parks was working as a waiter on a train. The turning point in his life came when he saw photographs of migrant farm workers in a magazine a train passenger had left behind. Photographers working for the government's Farm Security Administration had taken these images to illustrate the effects of the Great Depression. "I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs," he told an interviewer in 1999 (as quoted by Gundberg of the New York Times ). "I knew at that point I had to have a camera." Parks quickly bought one at a pawnshop in Seattle, then spent three years teaching himself photography.
In 1940, Parks convinced the owner of a women's clothing store in St. Paul to hire him as a fashion photographer. His work impressed Marva Louis, wife of legendary boxer Joe Louis, who convinced Parks to move to Chicago. She helped him get work shooting fashion and society photos; Parks also shot pictures of poverty on Chicago's South Side. That work won him a fellowship, which took him to Washington, D.C. to learn technique from the head of the Farm Security Administration's photography unit. He was assigned to document discrimination in Washington, so he photographed Ella Watson, a cleaning woman in the Farm Security Administration's offices whose father had been killed by a lynch mob, standing in front of an American flag holding a mop and broom. He entitled the photo "American Gothic, 1942," a reference to Grant Wood's 1931 painting of a white farm couple. At the time he took the photograph, he was angry that a clothing store, movie theater, and restaurant had all recently refused him service. His boss praised the photo but feared it would get them both fired; instead, it became one of Parks' most famous images.
When the agency was closed in 1943, Parks went to work for the government's Office of War Information, becoming its first black photographer. He compiled a photo essay on the training of the country's first black fighter pilot squadron. He spent three years on a project shooting American small towns and industrial centers for the Standard Oil of New Jersey Photography Project, and also did fashion photography for Glamour and Vogue magazines. In 1948, as a freelancer, he photographed Harlem gangs for Life magazine, the largest photo magazine in the United States. His essay, which focused on Red Jackson, a 16-year-old gang leader, led to Life hiring him as its first black staff photographer.
Parks spent more than 20 years shooting for Life , completing more than 300 assignments, ranging from stylized portraits of celebrity beauty to somber studies of racism and poverty. His famous portrait subjects included Barbra Streisand, Aaron Copland, and Gloria Vanderbilt. He spent 1949 through 1951 at the Paris bureau of Life , photographing everything from a state funeral to ordinary scenes. His 1956 photo essay documented the humiliation of segregation in the Deep South. Southerners twice threatened to lynch him while he was photographing the civil rights movement and other events for the magazine. Parks' photo essay "Freedom's Fearful Foe: Poverty," shot in the slums of Rio de Janiero, Brazil, in 1961, focused on a family whose young son, Flavio da Silva, was dying of malnutrition and asthma. Donations and free treatment at a Denver hospital helped save Flavio's life, and Life paid for a new home for the da Silvas. Parks directed a documentary on the boy in 1964 and wrote a biography about him, Flavio , in 1978.
Parks' groundbreaking position with Life often put him in awkward situations. Some black militants criticized him for working for a white publication, and Parks once upset other black photographers by not joining their protest against Life for not employing them. On the other hand, Life editors began to question Parks' ability to be objective toward black subjects. Still, in the early 1960s, Parks photo- graphed black radical groups, including the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims. Life had assigned white photographers to cover the groups, but they were not able to get access to them, so the editors turned to Parks. He wrote an essay about the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X that provoked a plot to murder him as well. Life sent his family abroad to protect them and put Parks under armed guard for a time.
Parks also wrote several books, starting with a photography manual in the late 1940s, followed by three memoirs, a historical novel, and a collection of essays on civil-rights leaders. One book, The Learning Tree , a semi-autobiographical novel about a black teen in rural Kansas, became a best-seller in 1963. Warner Bros. later hired him to write, direct, and score a film adaptation of his book. It was released in 1969, making him the first African-American moviemaker ever to direct a major Hollywood film.
That success led to a second film project. In 1971, Parks produced and directed the action thriller Shaft , about a cool, stylish black detective. The film was a hit among both black and white audiences, making Shaft Hollywood's first black action hero. The film's theme song, by Isaac Hayes, won an Oscar. The movie helped inspire the 1970s film genre known as blaxploitation, action films in urban settings with black lead characters, though Parks insisted that Shaft was not an exploitative movie. Parks continued to direct films in the 1970s, including a sequel to Shaft and a documentary about blues singer Leadbelly. Parks also helped launch the black magazine Essence and worked as its editorial director from 1970 to 1973.
Parks' success took him far from his early years in rural Kansas. He lived in a Manhattan high-rise with a view of the East River. In 1988, he received the National Medal of Arts from U.S. President Ronald Reagan. He also wrote the music for a ballet tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. He spent much of the 1980s and 1990s helping to create retrospectives of his work. One, Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks , toured American museums in the late 1990s.
Parks died on March 7, 2006, of complications from high blood pressure and prostate cancer at his Manhattan home. He was 93. He is survived by his son, David; his daughters, Toni and Leslie; five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. His son Gordon Jr. died in a 1979 plane crash. His marriages to Sally Alvis, Elizabeth Campbell, and Genevieve Young ended in divorce.
Chicago Tribune , March 8, 2006, sec. 1, p. 1, p. 12; Los Angeles Times , March 8, 2006, p. A1, p. A12; New York Times , March 8, 2006, p. C16; People , March 27, 2006, pp. 135-137; Times (London), March 9, 2006, p. 69; Washington Post , March 8, 2006, p. A1, p. A13.