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As Long as We Remember...

March 29, 2006

Who was Gordon Parks?

Kevin E. Dayhoff

On March 7, a cultural icon and one of America’s greatest artists, Gordon Parks, passed away at the too-young age of 93. Born in abject poverty, Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks came into this world on November 12, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, a new addition to a tenant farming family.

He was the youngest of 15 children. By age 16, at the dawn of the Great Depression, his mother died, and he ended up homeless in St. Paul, Minnesota.

There are many fascinating aspects of the Gordon Parks story, which spans many “revolutions” in the history of American public policy, art, culture and social progress. But, for an artist as prolific and accomplished as Mr. Parks, many folks are not aware of his name, although most are aware of his work.

Mr. Parks credited his mother with having a profound influence on his life. Isn’t it so with many of us? She taught him that he could do anything to which he set his mind.

Indeed, it was by his work ethic and his enormous talent that he escaped the chains of poverty, instead of simply becoming another sad statistic of the Great Depression. He was famous for being a workaholic and a taskmaster well into old age.

In an excellent memoriam in the New York Times, Andy Grundberg wrote that Mr. Parks was a “photographer, filmmaker, writer and composer who used his prodigious, largely self-taught talents to chronicle the African-American experience.” But as an “iconoclast, Mr. Parks fashioned a career that resisted categorization.”

For most of the 1930s, he supported himself by playing the piano in a brothel, basketball and working as a busboy. It was in 1938, while working on the Chicago to Seattle train as a waiter, that he noticed a discarded magazine with photographs from the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and began his journey to becoming an American icon as a photographer.

At the age of 26, he purchased a “Voightlander Brilliant” camera for $12.50 at a pawnshop in Seattle and began freelancing as a fashion photographer at local department stores in St. Paul.

It was here that he happened to take a photo of heavyweight boxer Joe Lewis’ wife, Marva Lewis. Impressed with the photo, she encouraged him to move to Chicago, where he continued freelancing as a fashion photographer, but gained attention doing a photo-documentary series of the poor black areas of town.

A 1941 exhibition of these photographs earned him a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. He joined the photographic documentation project of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration in Washington as an intern.

The photograph for which he may be the most famous was “American Gothic,” which he took while he was with the FSA, in 1942. Mr. Grundberg described it best in his New York Times article: “It shows a black cleaning woman named Ella Watson standing stiffly in front of an American flag, a mop in one hand and a broom in the other. Mr. 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.”

In 1944, he moved to New York City’s Harlem and began freelancing for Vogue magazine. After five years there he was able to attract the eye of Life magazine, perhaps because of a photo-documentary series on the gang wars in Harlem.

He took a job with Life that until 1972 took him all over the world, photographing everything from fashion in Paris to the slums of Rio de Janeiro to celebrity portraiture.

In 1963, he wrote an autobiographical novel, “The Learning Tree,” in which he chronicled much of his childhood in Kansas. In 1969, he adapted “The Learning Tree” into a screenplay, wrote the musical score and directed the movie.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the baby boomer generation started to take notice of his work, mostly documenting the Black Panther movement and the struggle for civil rights.

But it was when he burst into the world of commercial Hollywood in 1971, with what many refer to now as “blaxploitation films,” that he gained the attention of the emerging pop culture of the children of the 60s.

Yes, this is the gentleman, who in 1971 directed "Shaft," starring Richard Roundtree as the cool, black-leather-jacket-clad private detective.

It won Isaac Hayes an Academy Award for Best Music for the "Theme from Shaft." In 2000, the Library of Congress designated this movie "culturally significant" and preserved it in the National Film Registry.

In 1972, Mr. Parks followed-up with “Shaft's Big Score!” Many of the younger Tentacle readers became aware of these movies when Samuel L. Jackson starred in a remake in 2000.

Mr. Parks continued to write books, poetry, do films for television, photography and even composing music right up until his death.

Seldom do contemporary artists exhibit talent in so many different ways. His legacy is that of overcoming obstacles with hard work, focus, perseverance and determination.

He was an artist of enormous talent, with a profound social consciousness, who never lost track of his responsibility to the public, from which he earned a living. He set his standards high and served as an example for many of us – that life is not about excuses. Life is about taking personal responsibility for our lives, rolling up our sleeves and just going it.

Gordon Parks will be missed. May he rest in peace.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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