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Gordon Parks: An American Odyssey
Gordon Parks was one of the creative giants of the 20th century, he faced great injustices and went to war with them. With his eyes and heart to guide him, the camera became his weapon of choice.
17 March, 2021

Origins 

Parks was born into a family of fifteen to his mother Sarah and his father Andrew, who provided for them as a tenant vegetable farmer, they lived in a small Kansas town bordering Missouri. What he would achieve in his lifetime was fantastical, almost unbelievable, becoming the first black photographer for Life Magazine and Vogue, the first black director of a major Hollywood film, and a best-selling author, all whilst composing as a jazz pianist and being unapologetically cool. His greatest legacy are his photographs and although he became a cultural icon of his generation, his story is far from being a rosy chase of the American dream. The often gritty and horrific episodes which mark his biography are fundamental in understanding how his life ties into the greater narrative of the historically silenced peoples to whom he tried to give voice.

 In his book A Choice of Weapons, he writes “When I was eleven I became possessed of an exaggerated fear of death”. This fear was far from exaggerated for, by the age of 14, he describes how three of his closest friends had been brutally murdered, how a white cop had taunted him and his friends into looking for the body of a black man the officer had just shot and dumped into a river, and how Parks had himself been stoned, beaten senseless, and nearly drowned all “because my skin was black”. There are more stories of horror and nihilistic racism throughout the novel than there is space in this article to recount. Throughout all of this, it would be naive to assume that Parks would stand by passively unaffected through his experiences – no, this was definitely not the case. He describes how as a young adult he was filled with feelings of rage and revenge which he couldn’t comprehend, once knocking down his younger brother for being a couple of shades lighter than him. 

Boy With June Bug, Gordon Parks (1963) Princeton University Art Museum

Shifting Tides

The death of his mother in 1928 leaves Parks heartbroken, after her funeral his family sends him off to live with his sister Maggie Lee and her husband in St. Paul, Minnesota. A long way from home, misfortune seems to follow him up North and his abusive, alcoholic brother-in-law throws him out within a year. Now homeless and desperate, Parks recounts in his memoirs that he has all but lost hope, yet his mother left him with something which he found no one could take away. When he was very young she took out a loan and paid for a piano in installments, he was talented and worked hard at it throughout his childhood. Somewhat miraculously while stumbling through odd jobs to support him through highschool he lands a gig at a hotel playing the piano for its guests. He gets a little recognition and practically no money but he’s got a place he can turn to for warmth and food, with an emboldened spirit Parks composes “No Love” and dedicates it to a girl, Sally. With help from other (white) artists playing at the lounge, the song got radio play, and in 1932 Parks joined an orchestra.  Unfortunately, this leads nowhere and the musicians disband as soon as he moves to Harlem. Importantly though, Parks begins to realize that, through his art, he could get people to hear his pain and feel his sorrow. This would become very important later on. 

He goes back to Minnesota and marries Sally, who was his highschool sweetheart. It is astonishing that Parks managed to find the time to fall in love throughout all this and he did so in spectacular fashion, he would go on to marry Sally, go through a divorce, and then remarry her again. Now trying to support his wife and newborn son, he is quick to realize there is not much money to be made in music, so he works the railroads as a porter. On a long track, his friend Charly gives him a magazine which shows photographs from the Farm Security Administration taken by, among others, the famous Dorothea Lange. Images such as Migrant Mother were powerful evocations of the rural poor. The intent was to rally government support during the great depression but the effect on Parks was deeply emotional. He understood the pain in these images and the sensitivity it took to take them and he would later go on to receive a grant and take photos for the FSA as well, where he would capture his most well-known photograph American Gothic. Everything came together when at a stopover in Chicago he went to an exhibition of wartime photographer Norman Alley. At the end of the exhibition, Alley walked out and was greeted with celebration. Parks was stunned, what the FSA photographers had done in depicting poverty this man had just done with war, Parks writes, bringing the realities of the subjects to life and face-to-face with the audience. As he left the theatre he had already made up his mind, he would become a photographer, and with 17 Dollars to his name, he buys a Voigtländer Brilliant. 

Migrant Mother (1936) MoMA

Parks slowly began teaching himself how to use the camera, exposure, shutter speed, and composition all by buying rolls of film and snapping shots of people in the street. The way Parks told people’s story by showing them kindness and letting them tell it their way, resulted in the deeply sensitive and bold photographs he is best known for. He starts to land small gigs via his seemingly endless charm and occasional good luck. Starting out at a town and country department store he eventually takes the picture of Marva Louis, the wife of a famous boxer, who convinces him to go to live in Chicago where he joins the southside arts center, where it all starts. 

   A Hero’s Journey

Parks was a natural, his early work was perhaps, as he says, unrefined but it was also undeniably powerful, unflinching in its documentation of the southside. He drew a lot of attention and was awarded the Rosenwald fellowship, earning him his dream job despite much protest from the white establishment at the Farm Security Administration. Roy Stryker, the head of the photography unit at the FSA, aimed to educate America about segregation by capturing the plight of hard-working black Americans. He acts as a guide for Parks and shows him the realities of a wildly segregated Harlem. Walking out of an interview at the FSA building, Parks strikes up a conversation with Ella Watson, a cleaning lady he spots with a broom and mop in hand, he convinces her to let him take her photograph. Juxtaposing the American flag with Ella and her cleaning kit, inspired by Grant Wood’s 1930 painting, he makes a scathing indictment on the backward nature of racism in a country that prides itself on equality. Parks recalls that he shows his work to Roy Stryker who says “You’re getting the idea kid but you’re going to get us all fired”. Stryker recognized Parks for having the mind and heart to capture what he saw because he knew its importance, soon the world would too. 

Ella Watson Washington D.C. (1942), Gordon Parks New York Times
Parks Holding Camera (Date Unknown) IPHF

It doesn’t take long before his raw talent and piercing photography gets noticed. He goes on to work for Standard Oil alongside his good friend Langston Hughes and, again, Stryker. Eventually, given his growing profile, Parks lands a job as the first-ever black photographer for Vogue and gets sent to Paris for two years where he takes pictures of famous actresses wearing labels like Dior and Balenciaga. It seems he had both a personal and professional fascination with beautiful women and, somewhat unsurprisingly, Parks was very successful in both worlds. He took gorgeous pictures of the likes of Ingrid Bergman and Barbara Wood. However, what he really loved was people and he would fight for them relentlessly. His most provocative and culture-changing work would be done when he returned to Harlem in the form of multiple photographic essay series for Life Magazine. 

Models In NYC (1949) Gordon Parks Foundation

Harlem Gang Leader would become the most famous of these series. Right when Harlem’s crime rates were at their peak, Park proposed to Life (a moderately conservative magazine) a story of Harlem’s ghetto which followed a 17-year-old boy he knew called Red Jackson – leader of a street gang called the Midtowners. Receiving the green light to run the story, Parks got right to work but for a long time, there was no camera involved at all. He spent weeks with the gang, letting them ride in his Buick, spending late nights with their families, and ultimately befriending them. These weren’t hardened killers – they were kids, drawn to a life of petty crime and violence because of the harsh and unforgiving environment which surrounded them, Parks understood this and wanted to communicate it to the world. What emerges is a collection of images that humanize their protagonists. They included scenes of violence, and Parks himself had to escape with Red when a rival gang raided a funeral of one of the midtowners, but mainly they showed that Red and his friends didn’t ask for any of the trouble and misery they got. Some of it wasn’t so miserable at all, Parks knew they were simply making the best of it as anyone would. 

Red Jackson (1948) Gordon Parks Foundation
Harlem Gang Leader Series (1948) Gordon Parks Foundation
Harlem Gang Leader Series (1948) Gordon Parks Foundation
Harlem Gang Leader Series (1948) Gordon Parks Foundation

Some of the most profound and poetic photographs Parks would ever take were shot with his friend Ralph Ellison for Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man” which would go on to become a great American classic. The pictures are almost haunting because they communicate this deep longing need to be seen and heard, something both men understood as essential to the human condition. If you look long enough at the images of the nameless protagonist you begin to feel what he feels and the horror of that feeling is what Parks and Ellison wanted to evoke. The invisible man was a symbol for black America, the photos were a silent act of protest, the audience had no choice but to feel. 

“I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible because people refuse to see me (…) When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination- indeed, everything and anything except me.”

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952) Page 1
Invisible Man (1952) Gordon Parks Foundation

  Through His Eyes

Parks was immensely talented, hardworking, and creative but his genius lies in the last of the weapons he describes, the values his mother taught him before she passed, those of dignity, respect, compassion, and love. Those are the values that made him talk to Ella Watson, earn the trust of Red, and portray the invisible man. In an interview parks says “I pointed my camera at people who needed someone to say something for them”. Parks, after so much suffering, held on to his empathy without letting go of his anger, the two drove him to capture the moments which would profoundly shake the bedrock of a nation’s conscience at the time when it was most needed. Yet, it remains true that his work is disarming more than it is provocative, it depicted the truth and that is what made it so brave. Gordon Parks believed that people ought to fight for a society that is not afraid of the truth, in art and culture as much as in politics. The relevance of this belief is still alive today, in a world that is becoming increasingly polarized in a never-ending stream of conflicting narratives, great photography and storytelling could be a lifeline to reality. The back-breaking poverty and injustice Parks experienced stated, in bold print, that art was a luxury, maybe the beauty of his life’s work is showing us that the kind of art he fought for is a necessity. 

Parks With Harlem Youth (1968) Gordon Parks Foundation

“I felt the need to use humanity to make people become aware of those who suffered, not to get a beautiful picture, but to expose something to the public which was being hidden.”

– Gordon Parks

The biographical information in this article comes from Gordon Parks’ autobiography “A Choice of Weapons”, professors Kareen Haas’ and John Edwin Mason’s Lectures on Gordon Parks at the Boston Museum of the Fine Arts and the SVA, and the Gordon Parks Foundation. I am grateful to Dr. Haas, Dr. Mason, and those at the Foundation who have maintained his legacy, thank you for sharing your stories.

Inspired by Evan Pushak’s Video Essay”What Gordon Parks Saw

1 Comment

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    Interesting read and succinctly written 👏🏼

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