07/03/06 is a date that should be remembered for it marks the anniversary of one of life’s true heroes and pioneers of the art world Gordon Parks (not to be confused with the Scottish striker of the same name) Parks was one of those rare talents who no matter what he set mind to, be it photography, film making, writer or composer he never failed to fall short of genius. His immense, largely self-taught skills chronicled the African-American experience, resulting in a document of works that mirror the story of his own fascinating life.
Parks humble beginnings were nearly his downfall as he had to overcome being born into poverty, prejudice and losing his mother during his teenage years. Surviving narrowly through his teenage years he was finally saved from by his nascent gift, which was both musical and visual. Starting out as a piano player in a brothel, his skill was blatant for all to see as he created a name for himself as being a world class pianist.
This lead him to Seattle, Washington where at the age of twenty-five he bought his first camera at a pawn shop for $12.50. Armed with his trusty Voigländer Brilliant he documented the ever changing world around him, to applause from the photography clerks who developed his film. He then moved to Minnesota to work with women’s clothing store owner Frank Murphy and it was then his photos reached the wife of Joe Louis. It was upon her instruction that he move to Chicago, where he set up his own portrait company and specialized in photographs of society women.
Parks work began to become well recognised as his raw talent was simply stunning, with his style and keen eye for detail being present in abundance. This presented Parks with the opportunity to become the first African-American to work as a staff photographer for Life magazine. It was here where he developed an incredible ability to present risqué subjects, constantly challenging the society in which he lived. For me his success at Life magazine, (which published from 1948-1972) shows how Parks used his camera to bring attention to subjects often shied away from by American audiences.
It was his work during these years that put him at the forefront of the world as being one of the greatest humanitarian photojournalists of all time. His range of subjects made him a true great as his persuasiveness always allowed him to get the best from his focus. Parks specialized in his commentary of the life he once knew, one of black urban life rife with racism and poverty.
For myself I feel as though his strongest and most passionate work comes within these years and it is these he will probably be most remembered. The photograph entitled “American Gothic” which lends its name from the famous painting by Grant Wood. The photo depicts a black woman named Ella Watson standing in front of an American Flag as she clutches onto a broom in one hand and a mop in the other. It is said to have been a representation of the racial bigotry and segregation Parks encountered while in Washington D.C. and shows just to the extent Parks was given free reign to show the world as it was.
His work in the Brazilian slums is also just as hard hitting, as he brought the favelas to Americans living rooms. His story on the plight of Flavio da Silva is sensationally grim, with the photographs telling the life of South American poverty with a real force.
However, Parks also had more strings to an already impressive photography bow, as he also had an immense talent when shooting film stars and socialites, due to his natural persuasiveness. Some of these images Parks did looking at celebrities and important figures are critically huge as he looks into the likes of Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X. The photograph below of Malcolm X is one of my favourite images of all time, as it shows him handing out newspapers with a headline explaining about a incident involving negro males being beaten by white policemen. The obvious disinterest from the white patrons walking past the store he stands outside is just indicative of the time Parks and Malcolm X both experienced on a day to day basis, and really represents a nation in racial turmoil.
In the 60s he began to meander into writing, where he produced his memoirs, novels, poems and screenplays, which led him down the track to making one of the greatest films ever made. In 1969 he directed the Hollywood movie “The Learning Tree” which is a film based on his own life and semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. The movie is also shot in the actual town he grew up in and is an interesting insight into 1920s Kansas, where racial discrimination was just the social norm.
It however was not until 1971 did he announce himself on the movie scene when he directed and wrote the smash action movie Shaft. Since then Shaft has been garnered with award after award, with the New York Times naming it one of the best 1000 movies of all time further cementing the genius of Parks and his domination of all mediums.
Throughout the rest of his life Parks continued to work with the camera and writing as he carried on documenting the world around him. His productivity however, slowed but the quality of his work did not dip, and right until his death in 2006 he was still one of the most recognised figures across a whole host of mediums. All in all for me he is probably the most important photographers of all time and when you couple this with his incredible film making/writing it becomes plain to see just why this man should be remembered.
R.I.P Gordon Parks