Because of Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks is perhaps one of the greatest photographers of the last 100 years. Outside of photography, he was a well-known writer, poet, composer, director, and humanitarian.

Because of Gordon Parks

Changing the lives of African Americans in visual arts

Elderly Gordon Parks holding a camera lens up to his eye
Untitled, Image by Toni Parks

Gordon Parks is perhaps one of the greatest photographers of the last 100 years. Outside of photography, he was a well-known writer, poet, composer, director, and humanitarian.

Gordon made it known that one of his greatest motivations for documenting and creating work was to inspire social justice reform. He is on record stating that some of the work he created needed to be created even though he did not necessarily want to make it.

A Little History

Gordon Parks was born in Kansas in 1912. This puts him in the era of segregation. He was the youngest of 15 children and when he was 14 years old his mother died.

Parks became interested in photography at a young age. He saved and purchased his first camera from a pawn shop and began experimenting.

When he took his roll of film to be developed, the clerk was impressed with his photography and encouraged him to seek assignments, and offered him space to show his work.

Gordon Parks says that he was drawn to photography when he saw images of migrant workers taken by Farm Security Administration photographers in a magazine. (Gordon Parks Foundation)

A Choice of Weapon

Young Gordon Parks holding a large format camra on his shoulder
Untitled, 1941

Parks would continue to develop his skills as a photographer eventually winning the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942. This would spark a string of agency jobs and assignments allowing Parks to develop a signature style.

This continued work and style eventually allowed Mr. Parks to become recognized as not only a good African American photographer, but a good photographer.

“I SAW THAT THE CAMERA COULD BE A WEAPON AGAINST POVERTY, AGAINST RACISM, AGAINST ALL SORTS OF SOCIAL WRONGS. I KNEW AT THAT POINT I HAD TO HAVE A CAMERA.”

- GORDON PARKS

His work on assignment allowed him to document and shed light on poverty, racism, gang violence, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice.

This continued success led to another great breakthrough when he was able to document Red Jackson, a young Harlem gang leader. Parks painted Red as a human being, and that work helped open the door for him at Life magazine.

Harlem gang leader, Red Jackson with a child on his lap
Red Jackson with child

Breaking Down the Wall

Gordon Parks would go on to become what’s known as a Renaissance man.

He would become the first African American staff photographer with Life magazine and the first African American to write and direct a major Hollywood studio film.

The film, The Learning Tree, was based on his bestselling semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.

Mr. Parks photographed great historical figures like Duke Ellington, Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X. He composed music for a ballet dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Young Muhammad Ali looking in at his reflection in a mirror as he is skipping rope in a gym
Untitled, Miami Beach, Florida 1966

He went on to create the cultural phenomenon that is blaxploitation through a series of films surrounding a detective known as Shaft.

Gordon Parks broke down several walls for African American creators and even after his death, breathes life into the creators of today.

African American family sitting and standing on their front porch in the segreated south
Willie Causey and Family

Because of Gordon Parks

Because of the work of Gordon Parks, we have up-and-coming photographers like Vuhlandes and Andre Wagner. We have directors like Spike Lee.

Because of Gordon Parks, young black boys and girls are able to know that photography and art are viable careers.

Because of Gordon Parks, there is hope that we can be more than a rapper or sports superstars.

The work of Gordon Parks has inspired generations and it is my hope that it continues to do so.

Takeaways

There are several lessons to be observed from the life and works of Gordon Parks. I’ve listed a few below.

  • Pursue the things that interest you
  • Hard work will beat talent
  • YOU are the niche
  • Lean into your passions

What lessons have you observed from the life and works of Gordon Parks?

To learn more about his life, work, and legacy visit https://www.gordonparksfoundation.org/

All photos featured are from the Gordon Parks Foundation website.