Black HIStory: Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks (b. (November 30, 1912 – d. March 7, 2006)

Today’s Black HIStory feature is Gordon Parks. Unlike most artist, who tend to flirt with their craft during their childhood/teenage years, Parks, who first laid eye on his muse at the age of 25, was somewhat of a late bloomer. Having been affected by photographs of migrant workers in a magazine he bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brilliant, for $12.50 at a pawn shop.

Soon one of Parks photos “caught the eye of Marva Louis, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis‘ elegant wife. She encouraged Parks to move to Chicago, where he began a portrait business for society women.” In 1941, after being awarded a photography fellowship with the Farm Security Administration, Parks created one of his best known photographs, “American Gothic, Washington D.C.”.

“The photo shows a black woman, Ella Watson, who worked on the cleaning crew for the FSA building, standing stiffly in front of an American flag, a broom in one hand and a mop in the background. Parks had been inspired to create the picture after encountering repeated racism in restaurants and shops, following his arrival in Washington, D.C..”

After the disbanding of the FSA, Parks moved to Harlem and became a freelance photographer for Vogue magazine. “A 1948 photo essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine. For 20 years, Parks produced photos on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway, poverty, racial segregation, and portraits of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, and Barbra Streisand.”

Aside from being a talented photographer, Parks also dabbled in poetry and film directing. “Beginning in the 1960s, Parks branched out into literature, writing The Learning Tree (1963), several books of poetry illustrated with his own photographs, and three volumes of memoirs”

“‘Shaft‘, Parks’ 1971 detective film starring Richard Roundtree, became a major hit that spawned a series of blaxploitation films. Parks’ feel for settings was confirmed by Shaft, with its portrayal of the super-cool leather-clad black private detective hired to find the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem racketeer.”

Parks’ son, Gordon Parks Jr., directed the cult classic Super Fly.

“Parks is remembered for his activism, filmmaking, photography, and writings. He was the first African American to work at Life magazine, and the first to write, direct, and score a Hollywood film.Parks was a co-founder of Essence magazine and one of the early contributors to the blaxploitation genre.”

Parks himself said that freedom was the theme of all of his work:

“Not allowing anyone to set boundaries, cutting loose the imagination and then making the new horizons.”- Gordon Parks

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