The Gordon Parks Story ~ Black History Month 2021
By The International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum
A pivotal moment in the life of Gordon Parks came one morning while shaving. In his autobiography Voices in the Mirror, he writes, No doubt it was wisdom that taught me that my most dangerous enemy could be myself. I have known both misery and happiness, I have lived in so many different skins it is impossible for one skin to claim me.
And I have felt like a wayfarer on an alien planet at times—walking, running, wondering about what brought me to this particular place, and why. But once I was here the dreams starting moving in, and I went about devouring them as they devoured me.
One morning, with shaving razor in hand, I had stared into the mirror and asked myself some rather bothersome questions. With hard eyes I stared back at myself and reeled off some disturbing facts, along with some advice: “You’re approaching manhood and you dislike yourself.
That’s why you’re interrogating me. “Well, make up your mind and do something about it.” You’re so thin-skinned that the softest criticism rubs you raw. “Accept criticism, man. It can’t hurt, and it could be helpful.” Envy of others’ success hands around your neck like a rope.
“That’s stupid. Use their success to give you inspiration.” You squander too much time on trivial things, always hurrying to nowhere, and in a rush to get there. “Take your time, man. Think things out first, then go.” You avoid questions about yourself that you find hard to answer. “Figure things out. You just don’t have the right answers, so admit it.” You talk rapid-fire just to be heard, and without having anything worthwhile to say.
“That’s downright ego. Listen more. Keep your big mouth shut and keep your ears open. Your insecurity’s showing.” Well, enough for now. There’s plenty left on the list for tomorrow. “One last thing: Until you’re sure of yourself, you won’t be sure of anything. Think it over. See you tomorrow morning.” Many more sessions with the mirror gave Parks a sense of sanity in an insane world where he bore the cruelty of racism, poverty and despair. These conversations kept him alive and driven to eventually pursue photography and many other endeavors.
Parks was born the youngest of 15 children in Fort Scott, Kansas. As a young boy he had problems with the white people in town and the segregated schools, but he was comforted with the knowledge of his parents’ love and unity of the black community. When he was just a teenager, his mother died suddenly and Parks was devastated.
To add to the sorrow, Parks’ father told him to move to St. Paul, Minnesota to live with his sister and her family. Shortly after his arrival he and his brother-in-law had an argument and Parks was told to leave. He was now thrust out into a world he knew very little about, had very little money and it was Minnesota in winter.
To keep from freezing Parks rode the trolley between St. Paul and Minneapolis at night for nearly two weeks. After two weeks, the money was gone and Parks had not eaten in days. He was so hungry that when he saw a hurt pigeon, Parks built a small fire and ate the pigeon to keep from starving. Finally, Parks found a job as a dishwasher during the day. At night he utilized his natural music ability to play piano to play in a brothel. Over a period of many years Parks had various, similar jobs. At one point he held a job as a busboy in a high-class restaurant that had a live band.
One night Parks was playing the piano after hours and the bandleader heard him. Eventually, Parks began to travel with the band, but that ended quickly as the bandleader skipped out with the money. Parks struggled with his fierce emotions, as fate would build him up, then take him down.
After working for the band, Parks was left jobless again. And again, he could only find work for meager wages, cleaning the filth of bums and streetwalkers. Falling in love with Sally Alvis and voices in the mirror kept Parks from crumbling under the circumstances. As fate would have it, Parks was due for something good to happen and he found work as a waiter for the North Coast Limited, a transcontinental train. He married Sally and began a family.
The work also brought a new vision for Parks. Some of the magazines the passengers left behind contained photographs by Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Walker Evens and others, which inspired Parks to become a photographer. Still suffering the cruelties of my past, I wanted a voice to help me escape it. In 1938 a camera I bought for $7.50 would become that voice.
I bought that Voightlander Brilliant at a Seattle pawnshop; it wasn’t much of a camera, but for only $7.50, I had purchased a weapon I hoped to use against a warped past and an uncertain future. Parks began taking photographs and landed his first job shooting fashion for Madeline Murphy. His talent was almost immediately recognized by Eastman Kodak, which sponsored Parks’ first exhibitions.
His success led him to Chicago where he continued with fashion photography, but also began focusing his camera on the poverty stricken black community on Chicago’s south side. This portfolio won him the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship.
He was the first photographer to receive the fellowship, which led to Roy Stryker and Parks began work for the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C. He was the first African-American photographer to work for the FSA.
As a self-taught photographer who learned by looking at the great photographers of the day and visiting museums to study art by the masters, Parks was now on his way. He had a natural talent, and although many times he was still hit hard with cold reality of bigotry and forced to enter through the back door or sit at the back of the bus, Parks had won the respect of Stryker, printers and fellow photographers, which mattered most. One of the most recognized photographs by Parks in his early years with the FSA is the image of Ella Watson who Parks posed with the U.S. Flag as a backdrop, while holding a mop and a broom.
Gordon Parks, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942
With this photograph and many others soon to follow, Parks’ career in photography began to soar. He became the first African-American to photograph for Life and Vogue magazines. His documentary work included images of Harlem, including the world renowned “Harlem Gang Essay”, the 1960’s civil rights movement, the Black Panthers organization, the Ingrid Bergman-Roberto Rossellini love affair and much more.
He traveled the world with Life magazine, but then traveled home to document his hometown and how it had changed. Some of most famous portraits are of Muhammad Ali, which are insightful and some surprisingly sensitive. Parks’ later work includes color and abstraction photography. Like souls touching, poetry, music, paint, and the camera keep calling, and I can’t bring myself to say no.
In addition to his photographic work, Parks continued his music career. He composed orchestral music, film scores and wrote the ballet, Martin, which was about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He composed orchestral music, film scores and directed several motion pictures including The Learning Tree, based on his novel by the same name.
The book was based on Parks’ early life in Kansas. Parks has said that the title of the book was inspired by his mother, who once said, “you’re to let this place be your learning tree. Trees bear good fruit and bad fruit, and that’s the way it is here. Remember that.” His film, The Learning Tree was placed on the National Film Registry in 1989. His first film, however, was a documentary on Flavio.
He was the first African-American to produce, direct and score a film for a major Hollywood Studio, Warner Brothers. Later he produced films and film scores including Shaft, The Super Cops, Leadbelly, and Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey. In addition, he was the composer of numerous blues and jazz tunes.
He published a total of 12 books, including three autobiographies. Parks’ first book was published in 1947. It was an instruction manual entitled Flash Photography. During the 1970s, Parks used a combination of photographs and poetry for his next series of books. Other books followed with the latest book published in 1996 entitled Glimpses Toward Infinity. A man of many talents, Parks included poetry, photography and his new endeavor, painting in this inspirational book.
Parks has received more than 24 honorary degrees, including Maryland Institute of Fine Arts, Syracuse University, Boston University of Public Communication, and the Kansas City Art Institute. Other awards and honors include, Photographer of the Year by American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1964, Philadelphia Museum of Art Award and the Art Directors Club Award in 1964.
In addition, he won the Mass Media Award and an award for outstanding contributions to better human relations, both in 1964. 1966 marked more recognition, as he received the Notable Book Award from the American Library Association for his book A Choice of Weapons.
Nikon recognized Parks in 1967 with the Nikon Photographic Award for promotion of understanding among nations of the world. Parks received an Emmy Award in 1968 for best television documentary, Diary of a Harlem Family. The list of awards continues with the Carr Van Anda Award in journalism in 1970.
Parks has been inducted into the Black Film Makers Hall of Fame, the NAACP Hall of Fame and now the International Photography Hall of Fame. He was given first place at the Dallas Film Festival in 1976 and has been given the Governor’s Medal of Honor from the State of Kansas. In addition to the above listed, Parks has received countless awards, medals and honors.
Parks married Sally Alvis in 1933. The couple divorced in 1961 with three children: Gordon Parks, Jr., Toni Parks Parson, and David Parks. In 1962 Parks married Elizabeth Campbell, with whom he had one daughter, Leslie. Just 11 years later, they divorced.
That same year of his second divorce, he married again to Genevieve Young. He had three grandchildren and one great grandchild. He died of cancer at the age of 93 while living in Manhattan, and is buried in his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas.