Growing up I spent my summers in North Carolina with my grandparents. My grandfather was the original budding photographer in our family, he had a variety of different cameras and the whole art fascinated me. I was around seven when he gave me my first camera and that is the officially moment that I fell in love with photography and decided it would be a part of my career. Though my family fully supported my creative process, society and grade schools made the decision to be an artist or a photographer as a profession a form of failure because the arts was not considered “a real job” or a successful source of income. Then I learned about a self-taught artist who turned a fascination into a life long career. Gordon Parks is the reason I decided to embrace my love of the arts and pursue photography in college.
Gordon Parks (born November 30, 1912) is what I would consider a renaissance man. He was a musician, writer, and film director, but was most celebrated for being a photographer documenting many of the most important aspects of American culture ranging from issues of civil rights and poverty in the African-American community to glamour and fashion.
Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks left home at the age of 15 after the death of his mother. He lived with relatives for a short time before setting off on his own, taking whatever odd jobs he could find. At the age of 25, while working as a waiter in a railroad dining car, he began seeing the portfolios of portraits in magazines and decided to become a photographer. He purchased his first camera at a pawnshop and started a portrait business in Chicago.
Gordon Parks became the first African-American photographer for Life and Vogue magazines. He also pursued movie directing and screenwriting and was the first African-American to produce and direct major motion pictures. He developed films relating the experience of slaves and struggling black Americans, such as The Learning Tree and created the "blaxploitation” genre which produced Shaft.
He is best remembered for his iconic photos of poor low-income Americans during the 1940s taken during his fellowship with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Parks created some of his most enduring photographs during this fellowship, including one of his best-known photographs, American Gothic, Washington, D.C. Parks striking photograph shows a black woman, Ella Watson, who worked on the cleaning crew of the FSA building, standing stiffly in front of an American flag hanging on the wall, a broom in one hand and a mop in the background. Parks had been inspired to create the image after encountering racism repeatedly in restaurants and shops in the segregated capital city.
When the FSA job ended he became a freelance photographer for Vogue. Parks worked for Vogue for a number of years, developing a distinctive style that emphasized the look of models and garments in motion, rather than in static poses.
Relocating to Harlem, Parks continued to document city images and characters while working in the fashion industry. His 1948 photographic essay on a Harlem gang leader won him widespread acclaim and a position as the first African American staff photographer and writer for LIFE magazine, at the time the nation's most prominent and highest-circulation photographic publication in the world. Parks held this position for 20 years, producing photographs on subjects including fashion, sports, and entertainment as well as poverty and racial segregation. He took memorable portraits of African-American celebrities, politicians, and leaders, including Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Adam Clayton Powell, and Muhammad Ali. In the 1970s, Parks served as the editorial director during the first three years of Essence Magazine’s circulation.
Many of Parks photos capture the essence of activism and humanitarianism in the mid-twentieth century America and have become iconic images, defining their era for later generations. They also rallied support for the emerging Civil Rights Movement, for which Parks himself was a tireless advocate as well as a documentarian.
I had the opportunity to meet Gordon Parks my junior year of college when he came to speak at my school Pratt. It was a full circle moment in my life. He was an active photographer until his death on March 7, 2006, at the age of 93. Parks spent his life expanding his style, a style that would make him one of the most celebrated photographers of his age. He broke the color line in professional photography while creating remarkably expressive images that consistently explored the social and economic impact of racism. He will always be a legend and one of my all time favorite artist.