Changing the lives of African Americans in visual arts
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.