Gordon Parks
National Visionary

November 30, 1912 to March 7, 2006

World famous photographer, author, filmmaker, and composer

From being homeless to buying a home for those who are less fortunate to becoming one of the world’s most celebrated photo-journalists, Gordon Parks lived the life of a thousand men. With an impoverished past, it could not have been foreseen that Parks would record the world’s emotional history as a photographer, author, poet, filmmaker, and composer.

Born on November 30, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks overcame poverty and racism with curiosity and persistence in order to seek more than the South would allow for African Americans. After his mother died when he was 15, Parks left Kansas for Minneapolis and supported himself as a piano player, bus boy, basketball player, and Civilian Conservation Corpsman. With the purchase of his first camera for $7.50, the determined novice received his first big break in professional photography when he convinced the local owner of Frank Murphy’s clothing store for women to permit him to take fashion photos. This first professional job demonstrated his natural ability to enhance beauty, whatever the venue.

"As the recognition of his unique artistic grew, Parks soon rose to the top of his profession. In 1941, Parks became the first photographer to receive a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation.

Influenced by such documentary artists as Ben Shahn, Jack Delano, Carl Mydans, Dorthea Lange, John Vachon, and Walker Evans, Parks chose to work for Ray Striker with the Farm Services Administration (FSA). FSA was a government agency designed to call attention to the plight of the needy during the Depression and to create a historical record of social and cultural conditions across the nation. One of the first photographs that Parks was inspired to take was in Washington, DC during what is now referred to as the American Gothic. Stated Parks: “I had purchased a weapon that I hoped to use against a warped past and an uncertain future.” He went on to document the experiences of the all-black air corps during World War II, and life in small towns and industrial centers throughout the United States.

Although he renewed his career in fashion photography with elegant shoots for VOGUE magazine, Parks’ talents reached a pivotal point when he became the first African American photographer at LIFE magazine. It was here that he produced some of his most phenomenal work, connecting readers to the real-life emotions of the subjects of his photography. He concentrated on the worldwide issues of violence and poverty, eventually earning a World Press Photo Award.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
>But his talents did not stop at the photographic lens. In 1958, Parks began manipulating his pictures, evoking rhythmic visual imagery that fluctuated between realism and abstraction. Expanding his artistry as a director, Gordon Parks produced award-winning films like The Learning Tree, based on the autobiographical novel of his childhood in Kansas. He moved on to become the first African American to direct a Hollywood motion picture, the Academy Award-winning, Shaft. Yet again, Parks proved his dedication to documentaries with his production of Diary of Harlem, for which he received an Emmy.

As a musical composer, his internationally heard musical compositions range from symphonic pieces to sonatas and concertos. He also created a ballet about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. titled “Martin.”

Parks was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal and the National Medal of Arts for his life achievements. Additionally, he also received more than 40 honorary degrees and several other lifetime achievement awards. With a number of published books, Parks is respected not only for his inspiring genius, but also for his willingness to share the knowledge he has gained from his own experiences and through the lives of others.

Gordon Parks passed away on March 7, 2006 in New York City. He was 93.



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