Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was an American photographer, film director, writer and composer. He directed “Shaft” (1971) and co-founded Essence magazine. He was the first black photographer at Life magazine. He was the first black director at any big Hollywood studio. He was muse to Gloria Vanderbilt and godfather to one of Malcolm X’s children. He has at least three schools named after him.
He took pictures for Life magazine from 1948 to 1968, then the top weekly photojournalism magazine in America. He was big on two sorts of photography: high fashion and the photo essay. In the 1950s he helped Life’s white middle-class readers to see the injustice of Jim Crow; in the 1960s he helped them to understand why blacks were so angry.
He was the 15th child of a poor dirt farmer in Kansas. He was born dead. His namesake, Dr Gordon, got his heart started by putting him in ice-cold water.
At high school a white teacher told him a university education would be a waste – he would never be more than a porter. He dropped out of high school and later became a porter.
In 1937 when he was a waiter on the train from Chicago to Seattle he looked at a magazine left on the train, at an article on migrant workers:
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.
At Seattle he bought a second-hand camera. He did not even know how to load the film! But ten years later he was the only black photographer at Vogue! Along the way the photographers who took those pictures of the migrant workers trained him. They told him you cannot take a picture of a bigot and write “bigot” under the picture. The picture itself must show the bigotry.
Among his qualities:
- He could quickly gain the trust of people, from Ingrid Bergman to Elijah Mohammed to Life magazine to the Black Panthers to Warner Brothers to, most important of all, the people he took pictures of.
- He took sky-blue chances: he taught himself photography, composed music, followed a gang leader, tried to get hired at companies that would not even hire blacks as cleaning people, etc.
- Love of art and beauty: Even as a waiter he went to art museums. That art would later inform his photography.
- Anger at racism and poverty.
For example: Millions of white photographers wanted to work for Life. He knew he would never get an interview. So instead he just walked into the office of the editor and talked him into looking at his pictures!
He was careful not to let racism limit him. Yet it was not till he worked in Paris for Life that he fully understood how American racism had kept him from flowering. It was then that he spread his wings beyond photography and, in time, became a composer, writer and film director.