Gordon Parks-- Humanitarian Journalist, Master of the Camera
(Pictured at left: Gordon Parks (1912-2006), Emerging Man, Harlem, 1952. Gelatin silver print. © Gordon Parks. Collection of the International Center of Photography).
To commemorate the centennial of the birth of photographer, filmmaker, musician, and writer Gordon Parks (1912–2006), the International Center of Photography in conjunction with The Gordon Parks Foundation is presenting Gordon Parks: 100 Years, a window installation at ICP (1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street) encompassing a large-scale photo mural and slideshow of more than 50 photographs he captured throughout his long, illustrious career.
On view through January 6, 2013, the 20-foot-by-13-foot photo mural features Emerging Man, one of Parks’ iconic images captured in Harlem in 1952. Three video screens will display his stunning images, which explore such issues as urban and rural poverty, racism and prejudice, politics, and the historic Civil Rights Movement.
“As we celebrate Gordon Parks’ life we also celebrate his legacy as a humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice,” said Dr. Maurice Berger, Guest Curator. “The body of work he left behind documents many of the most important aspects of American culture from the early 1940s up until his death in 2006.”
Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, on November 30, 1912, Parks moved to Minneapolis in 1928 and became a photographer in 1937 after seeing examples of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs reproduced in a magazine. He was a fashion photographer in Minneapolis and Chicago, before going to Washington, D.C. and finding work with Roy Stryker at the FSA. He subsequently photographed for the Office of War Information and at the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. Parks worked as a fashion photographer at Vogue beginning in 1944, and when
LIFE hired him as a staff photographer in 1948, he accepted assignments both in fashion and photojournalism. He remained at LIFE until 1970, producing many of his most important photo essays, such as those on Harlem gangs, segregation in the South, his own experiences with racism; on Flavio da Silva, a poor child living in Brazil; and on Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Panthers.
A multi-talented artist, Parks was the first African-American to direct a Hollywood film—The Learning Tree (1969). His critically acclaimed films also include Diary of a Harlem Family (1968), Shaft (1971), and Leadbelly (1976). He composed music and published novels, memoirs, poetry and book-length photo essays. This versatility made him one of the most respected artists of his time. Parks’ photographs include portraits, landscapes and cityscapes, fashion shots, abstract images, as well as intimate views of communities all over the world.
A close friend of ICP Founder Cornell Capa, Parks received ICP’s Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1990. He is well represented in the museum’s permanent collection and ICP presented a major retrospective of his work, Moments Without Proper Names: Photographs by Gordon Parks, in 1975.
Gordon Parks: 100 Years was curated by Berger in conjunction with ICP and The Gordon Parks Foundation, a division of the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation.
“An iconoclast, Mr. Parks fashioned a career that resisted categorization. No matter what medium he chose for his self-expression, he sought to challenge stereotypes while still communicating to a large audience. In finding early acclaim as a photographer despite a lack of professional training, he became convinced that he could accomplish whatever he set his mind to. To an astonishing extent, he proved himself right,” wrote the “New York Times.”
“Gordon Parks developed his ability to overcome barriers in childhood, facing poverty, prejudice and the death of his mother when he was a teen-ager. Living by his wits during what would have been his high-school years, he came close to being claimed by urban poverty and crime. But his nascent talent, both musical and visual, was his exit visa."
"I still don't know exactly who I am. I've disappeared into myself so many different ways that I don't know who 'me' is. " Parks wrote.
In the photograph “ American Gothic,” (pictured at left), Parks “wanted the picture to speak to the existence of racial bigotry and inequality in the nation's capital. He was in an angry mood when he asked the woman to pose, having earlier been refused service at a clothing store, a movie theater and a restaurant.”
Parks was moved by social injustice and was inspired by such great Depression-era photographers as Dorthea Langer and Ben Shahn. "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." He found his first camera in a pawn shop.
Life magazine asked Parks to photograph subjects usually off limits to others. He made memorable photo essays of his visits with Black Muslims and Black Panthers. Yet his fashion photographs were widely admired and won him international praise.
"I'm in a sense sort of a rare bird. I suppose a lot of it depended on my determination not to let discrimination stop me." “ He never forgot that one of his teachers told her students not to waste their parents' money on college because they would end up as porters or maids anyway. He dedicated one honorary degree to her because he had been so eager to prove her wrong,” said the “New York Times.”
"I had a great sense of curiosity and a great sense of just wanting to achieve," he said. "I just forgot I was black and walked in and asked for a job and tried to be prepared for what I was asking for."
The Gordon Parks Foundation permanently preserves the work of Gordon Parks, makes it available to the public through exhibitions, books, and electronic media and supports artistic and educational activities that advance what Parks described as “the common search for a better life and a better world.” The Foundation is a division of the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation.
Visit your public library for these resources:
Books by Gordon Parks:
Flash Photography (1947) (technical)
Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture (1948) (documentary)
The Learning Tree (1964) (semi-autobiographical)
A Choice of Weapons (1967) (autobiographical)
Born Black (1970) (compilation of essays and photographs)
To Smile in Autumn (1979) (autobiographical)
Voices in the Mirror (1990) (autobiographical)
The Sun Stalker (2003) (biography on J.M.W. Turner)
A Hungry Heart ( 2005) (autobiographical)
Photography, poetry books by Gordon Parks
Moments Without Proper Names (1975)
Eyes With Winged Thoughts (2005)
Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, memoir excerpts by Gordon Parks. (1997)
Films directed by Gordon Parks
Diary of a Harlem Family (1968)
The World of Piri Thomas (1968)
The Learning Tree (1969)
Shaft's Big Score (1972)
The Super Cops (1974)
Books about Parks
S.L. Berry, (1990).
The Photographs of Gordon Parks
Martin H. Bush, (1983).
Gordon Parks: Photographer, Writer, Composer, Film Maker
Donloe, Darlene. (1993).
Gordon Parks: No Excuses
Ann Parr and Gordon Parks, (2006).
Bare Witness: photographs by Gordon Parks
Maren Stange, (2006).
For Younger Readers
Turk, Midge, and Herbert Danska, (1971).
Gordon Parks: Black Photographer and Film Maker
Harnan, Terry, and Russell Hoover,(1972).
1. Article illustration:
(Gordon Parks (1912-2006), Emerging Man, Harlem, 1952. Gelatin silver print. © Gordon Parks. Collection of the International Center of Photography).
2. International Center for Photography window installation.
3. Gordon Parks.
4. American Gothic, Washington, D.C. - a well-known photograph by Gordon Parks. © Gordon Parks