Gordon Parks, director, photographer:
“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.”
Parks, the youngest of 15 children, was born to a farmer and attended a segregated elementary school. The town was too small to support a segregated high school, so Blacks and Whites attended together, but Black students were forbidden to participate in sports or attend school social activities.
After his mother’s death, when Parks was just 14, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with a sister and her husband. Parks and his brother-in-law fought often, and at 15, Parks was turned out into the street to fend for himself. Struggling to survive, he worked in brothels, and as a singer, piano player, bus boy, travelling waiter, and semi-pro basketball player.
At the age of 25, Parks would strike upon his passion-after seeing photographs of migrant workers. He bought his first camera for $7.50 and taught himself how to take photos. Over the next few years, Parks moved from job to job, developing a freelance portrait and fashion photographer sideline.
He began to chronicle the city’s South Side black ghetto and, in 1941, an exhibition of those photographs won Parks a photography fellowship with the Farm Security Administration. Parks’ overall body of work for the federal government—using his camera “as a weapon”—would draw far more attention from contemporaries and historians than that of all other black photographers in national service at the time. Today, most historians reviewing federally commissioned black photographers of that era focus almost exclusively on Parks.
A 1948 photographic essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with America’s leading photo-magazine, Life. His involvement with Life would last until 1972. For over 20 years, Parks produced photographs on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway, poverty, and racial segregation, as well as portraits of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Muhammad Ali. He became “one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States. He also was the first Black director of a major film, Shaft, helping to shape the blaxploitation era in the ’70s.
By Aprille’ Morris & Emily Burke
Edited By Keshav Kant