Photo by Gordon Parks
African American, Documentary Photography, Film, Music
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born the youngest of fifteen children in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1912. His parents, Andrew Jackson Parks and Sarah Ross Parks, made a modest living through farming. After his mother’s death, Parks left home at age fourteen, and struggled against the brutality of a segregated society, attendant poverty, and stints of occasional homelessness. These experiences informed his unwavering commitment to engage racism and inequity throughout the course of his formidable sixty-year career, which began in the Depression.
Parks’ primary work was in still photography, but he also became an acclaimed filmmaker, director, screenwriter, music composer, and writer of fiction and nonfiction.
Largely self-taught, Parks gained much of his experience using the camera to document social issues as a member of the legendary cadre of photographers who chronicled America for the Farm Services Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) beginning in 1942. Parks’ considerable storytelling skills are apparent in his photo essays and films produced throughout his career.
His body of work put a human face to injustice, and aesthetically and artistically depicted affirmative examples of Black cultural pride and courage. During his stint at the FSA/OWI in Washington, DC, he produced the first in an entire corpus of iconic images that attests to the humanity, innate dignity and resilience of individuals marginalized by larger society – a recurring theme in his work. Here, and later for Standard Oil, Parks documented the work culture of African American firefighters in the segregated firehouses in Washington, DC, and the training activities of the pioneering Tuskegee Airmen, the all-Black unit of pilots in the American Army’s Air Corps 332nd Fighter Group. In other photo assignments, he photographed Gloucester fishermen, workers in New York’s Fulton Street Fish Market in New York, and African American workers in a Pittsburgh grease plant. Parks subsequently documented the persistence of African Americans and others in quest for freedom in the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The breadth and depth of his talent earned him positions as staff at Vogue magazine shooting fashion spreads (1944), as the first African American staff photographer for Life magazine (1948), and as co-founder and directing editor for Essence magazine (1970).
In 1969, he became the first African American to direct a major Hollywood film, The Learning Tree, for which he authored a screenplay adaptation of his own fictionalized autobiography (1962) and composed the soundtrack. Parks’ other major directorial projects include Shaft (1971), Shaft’s Big Score (1972), and Leadbelly (1976) which reframed Black images and history for public consumption.
Among his voluminous and acclaimed publications in a variety of media, two of relevance to folklore studies are:
Segregation in the South (1956)
Fields of Vision: The Photographs of Gordon Parks (2011)