by Charles David
During a multi-faceted career that spanned over six decades in America and across the world, master photographer Gordon Parks was the embodiment of the Renaissance man. He was cool, confident and a man of great. Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of 15, Parks successfully wore several creative hats throughout his artistically diverse career. He was an accomplished essayist, novelist, poet, screenwriter, composer and was the first African American to write, produce, direct and score a film. He was also the first African American to work at The Office of War Information and The Farm Security Administration (FSA), experiences he credits largely with influencing and informing his photojournalism approach and integrity in his work.
One morning in 1948, after a brief stint at vogue, Parks took his portfolio to Wilson Hicks, then picture editor of Life Magazine and asked for a job. To Parks’ surprise, he was offered a job-making him not only the magazine’s first African American staff photographer and writer, but also its youngest staff member to be assigned to its Paris bureau. In fact, even before he was officially on the magazine’s staff, Parks was sent to Europe to do assignments, a move the magazine wouldn’t normally do for a young photographer just starting out. His first assignment for life was a photographic essay on 16 year old Harlem gang leader Red Jackson, during a time when gang wars were on the rise in Harlem. The essay was published, winning Parks much widespread recognition and praises. Parks also had an incredible ear for music and with the encouragement of a friend, while on assignment in Paris for Life Magazine from 1949 to 1951, he wrote and composed concerto for piano and orchestras.
In 1969, Parks’ became the first black artist to direct a major film in Hollywood and it was The Learning Tree-an autobiographical novel he wrote, about a coming of age adolescent black boy in rural America. In the 70s, he served as editorial director for Essence Magazine from its debut in 1970 for the next three years. Many credit him as being one of the magazine’s founders. Around the same time of his gig with Essence, Parks subsequently made the cult-classic action flicks Shaft and Shaft’s Big Score. The first movie I saw that Parks directed, starred Roger E Mosely who brilliantly portrays talented, but troubled blues and folk singer Leadbetter, nicked name Leadbelly. (Notice a young Ernie Hudson in his movie debut.) Every time I watch this movie, I discover something new and exciting. Only a photographer with a master talent like his, could have directed Leadbelly the way he did, especially with the way he used that Southern lighting he knew so well. Leadbelly has all the elements of a Gordon Parks project, a great storyline, vibrant colors, wonderful lighting, all set against the rural countryside.
Gordon Parks had a special feeling for humanity and was always involved in things that were happening to people. No matter what color they were, whether they were Indians, or blacks, the poor white person or anyone who he though got a bad shake. His phenomenal body of work represents Americans of all levels of society-from the rural and laboring of the South to the wealthy and leisured of Park Ave. His powerful images of the civil rights movement, racial segregation and poverty throughout the South, remain some of the most vivid and important images in telling America’s social legacy. From a very young age Parks was very strong-willed and independent minded. He refused to be defeated by racism, poverty and especially gang violence, which he saw as the enemy. In 1997 in his book Half Past Autumn, he wrote, “in my youth, violence became my enemy …Photography, writing, music and film are the weapons I use against it…”
Whether it was through his photographs, the movies he wrote and directed, his beautiful books, concertos he wrote applying his style of reading music or his brilliant poetry, Gordon Roger Parks was a man of indomitable courage, who was always searching for a deeper meaning of life.