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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Gordon Parks

Names:
Born: Gordon Alexander Buchanan Parks 
Dates:  1912 - 2006, 7 March
Born:  US, KS, Fort Scott
Died:  US, NY, New York
Active:  US
Gender:  Male
 
  
American writer, screenwriter, poet, composer and photographer. A photographer with strong social principles who worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) but continued to highlight civil rights and issues of social deprivation.

Preparing biographies


Biography provided by Focal Press 
  
A self-taught photographer who purchased a used camera in 1937, Parks was one of the earliest internationally praised African American photographers; his career has gone beyond stellar. He grew up in poverty (moving to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1928) as the youngest of fifteen siblings. He worked as a busboy, lumberjack, professional basketball player, and piano player, but got paid for his first photographs of fashion made in Chicago. Sent on a fellowship to the nation’s capital, Parks was hired by Roy Stryker to photograph for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1942. One of Parks’ most noted images was made right inside the FSA government office of custodian Ella Watson (whose husband had been lynched) holding her mop and broom in front of a symbolic American flag. Parks later traveled the world making pictures for Standard Oil of New Jersey (1943–1948). He ultimately became a mainstay staff photographer for LIFE (1948–1972), producing such major photographic essays as "The Death of Malcolm X," "On the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr.," and the poignant story of a Brazilian child, "Flavio da Silva." He founded Essence magazine in 1970 and has photographed a range of personages from Gloria Vanderbilt and Ingmar Bergman to Muhammad Ali. He has also been successful as a mystery author and a Hollywood director (The Learning Tree, 1969; Shaft, 1971). Recently Parks has dedicated new energy as a post-octogenarian to still life and landscape photography in color and with digital technologies. 
  
(Author: Ken White - Rochester Institute of Technology) 
  
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 
  

HomeContents > Further research

 
  
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General reading 
  
Capa, Cornell (ed.), 1972, The Concerned Photographer 2, (New York: Grossman Publishers in cooperation with The International Fund for Concerned Photography) [Δ
  
Willis, Deborah, 2000, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present, (New York - London: W.W. Norton & Company) isbn-10: 0393048802 [Δ
  
 
  
Readings on, or by, individual photographers 
  
Brookman, Philip, 1997, Gordon Parks: Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, (Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown and Co.) [Δ
  
Bush, Martin H, 1983, The Photographs of Gordon Parks, (Wichita State University) [Δ
  
Johnson, Charles, 2011, Fields of Vision: The Photographs of Gordon Parks, (Giles in association with the Library of Congress) isbn-13: 978-1904832874 [Δ
  
Kunhardt, Peter & Roth, Paul (eds.), 2012, Gordon Parks: Collected Works, (Steidl / The Gordon Parks Foundation) isbn-13: 978-3869305301 [Five volumes] [Δ
  
Parks, Gordon, 1948, Camera Portraits: Technique and Principals of Documentary Portraiture, (New York: Franklin Watts) [Δ
  
Parks, Gordon, 1966, A Choice of Weapons, (New York: Harper and Row) [Δ
  
Parks, Gordon, 1975, Moments without Proper Names, (New York: Viking Press) [Δ
  
Parks, Gordon, 1990, Voices in the Mirror, An Autobiography., (New York: Nan A. Talese) [Δ
  
Parks, Gordon, 2005, Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography, (New York: Harlem Moon) [Δ
  
Parks, Gordon, 2013, The Making of an Argument, (Steidl) isbn-13: 978-3869307213 [Δ
  
 
  
If you feel this list is missing a significant book or article please let me know - Alan - alan@luminous-lint.com
 
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René De Carufel
Gordon Parks 
[The Photographer's Eye] 
2005, May
 
  
Family history 
  
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch. 
  
alan@luminous-lint.com
 
  
QR code 
  
 
  

Visual indexes

ThumbnailGordon Parks: FSA - Farm Security Administration
 
 
All photographs by this photographer 
  
 
  

Supplemental information

 

Gordon Parks
American 1912-2006

From the age of fifteen, Gordon Parks was already a writer and a musician interested in photography. He would eventually become well known for his work in the Farm Security Administration (FSA), the U.S. Office of War Information, and as a staff photographer for Life. His talents in the arts also extended to directing films. As a young black man, Parks could only find difficult and odd jobs such as herding cattle and carrying bricks. He would later insist that it was the memory of his family's closeness that sustained him.
 
Parks decided to be a photographer in 1937 after he saw a film depicting the sinking of the U.S.S. Panay in China. At this time, he was working as a waiter for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Parks went back to Seattle and promptly bought his first camera, and the Kodak shop which developed his film gave him his first show. He was fired from Northern Pacific after getting into an altercation with a white man, but soon got his first professional job working as a fashion photographer for a store by the name of Murphy's in St. Paul, Minnesota (Bush, 9-14). Photographing the models at Murphy's marked the start of Parks' experience working in the fashion industry.
 
In 1941 Parks won a Julius Rosenwald fellowship for his photographic work at Chicago's South Side Community Art Center. In the same year he chose to work for Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration. It was there he “learned how to fight the evil of poverty – along with the evil of racism – with a camera” (Bush, 38). One of his first and most well known pictures he took in the nation's capital was “American Gothic,” 1942. The subject of the photo, framed by a mop, a broom, and the American flag, was a charwoman by the name of Ella Watson, also working at the FSA. Watson had lived a rough and tragic life marred by violent racism and poverty. After hearing her story, it was Parks who posed her and sought to compose a narrative of her experience through the use of his camera (Brookman, 33 ; 348-349). In accordance with the FSA's mission, he traveled through various parts of the U.S., recording the Depression's impact on culture and society.
 
By 1943, the FSA was disbanded. Both Parks and Stryker were transferred to the Office of War Information (OWI). Parks was scheduled to accompany black troops overseas, but the assignment was abruptly cancelled. It was said that an unnamed politician from the South did not want too much publicity for black soldiers. Stryker and Parks soon moved on to the Standard Oil Company, which sponsored a large photo documentary project. Though it was designed to combat the company's infamous reputation for discriminatory policies, the program was not a huge success for Standard Oil . Ironically, Parks was still subjected to anti-black sentiment (Bush, 49-50; 56).
 
He was eventually laid off by his longtime mentor and employer, Roy Stryker. Parks had never forgotten his interest and talent in fashion photography. Alexey Brodovitch at Harper's Bazaar admired his fashion pictures, and promptly said that due to being a William Randolph Hearst publication, they could not hire any black staff members. Nevertheless, Parks went on to freelance for Vogue and Glamour, and established his reputation as a superior fashion photographer (Brookman, 76). This experience served him well when LIFE assigned him to cover the French collections in Paris, despite the fact he had been with the magazine for only eighteen months (Bush, 99).
 
Along with major fashion contributions, Parks photographed dozens of noteworthy people for LIFE; among them were Ingrid Bergman, Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Grace Kelley, Louis Armstrong, Paul Newman, and Muhammad Ali. Parks' extraordinary documentary work chronicled poverty, crime, school segregation, Communist demonstrations, the return of U.S. Korean War veterans, the Civil Rights movement, and the Black Panthers. During his tenure at Life , Parks covered everything from the latest fashions in women's garters to prison riots in New Jersey (Bush, 128-134).
 
In 1969, Parks directed his first film, The Learning Tree. Four additional films followed: Shaft (1971), Shaft's Big Score (1972), The Super Cops (1974), and Leadbelly (1976) (Bush, 127). During this time, from 1970-1973, the man who had become known as “The Poet and His Camera” was the editorial director for Essence magazine (Auer).
 
During his entire career and throughout the last decade of his life, Parks continued to write, paint, compose, and photograph. Looking back on his success, he recalled a white schoolteacher who instructed him and his classmates not to bother with college, since they would all end up as “porters and maids” anyway. Though he was grateful to have proven her wrong, he acknowledged that he never made peace with the memories of his birthplace. Parks impatiently waited “for that segregated graveyard to become a forgotten memory” (Brookman, 343).
 
References
 
Photographers Encyclopedia International: 1839 to the Present, L-Z. Michèle and Michel Auer. 1985. Editions Camera Obscura.
 
The Photographs of Gordon Parks. Martin H. Bush. 1983. Wichita State University.
 
Gordon Parks: Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective. Philip Brookman. 1997. Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown and Co.
 
Roy Stryker: USA 1943-1950. Steven W. Plattner and Cornell Capa. 1983. University of Texas Press.
 
LIFE Photographers: Their Careers and Favorite Pictures. Stanley Rayfield. 1957. Doubleday and Co.
 
[Contributed by Erin McGrath - Lee Gallery]  
  
 

Internet biographies

Terms and Conditions

 
Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer.Show on this siteGo to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online (www.groveart.com) has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
Show on this siteGo to website
The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA has a biography on this photographer. [Scroll down the page on this website as the biography may not be immediately visible.]Show on this siteGo to website
The International Photographers Hall of Fame has provided a biography.Show on this siteGo to website
 

Internet resources

Terms and Conditions

 
Gordon Parks 
http://pdngallery.com ... 
  
Gordon Parks 
http://memory.loc.gov ... 
  
Gordon Parks 
http://memory.loc.gov ... 
  
 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

 
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.235 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
  
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.379-380 
  
• Evans, Martin Marix (Executive ed.) 1995 Contemporary Photographers [Third Edition] (St. James Press - An International Thomson Publishing Company) [Expensive reference work but highly informative.] 
  
• International Center of Photography 1999 Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection (New York: A Bulfinch Press Book) p.224 [Includes a well written short biography on Gordon Parks with example plate(s) earlier in book.] 
  
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Gordon Parks.] 
  
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.136 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 
  
 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

 
• Gruber, Renate and L. Fritz Gruber 1982 The Imaginary Photo Museum (New York: Harmony Books) p.256 
  
 
  
 
  
 
  
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