Black History Month: Remembering African American Photographer Gordon Parks

Did you know.:GORDON PARKS EXHIBIT Black History Month: Remembering African American Photographer Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks (Nov. 30, 1912- March 7, 2006) was a photographer, writer, film director, composer, and musician. His works document the 20th century and have been seen by millions of people around the world. Parks was the youngest of 15 children, born to impoverished parents in Kansas. Parks was the first African-American photographer to work at Life magazine and Vogue magazine. He wrote 12 books, produced many documentaries and Hollywood films (including Shaft), produced, directed, and scored a major Hollywood film (The Learning Tree, 1960), wrote a ballet about Martin Luther King (called Martin), and composed other music (including a symphony, a concerto, blues and other popular songs).

Darlene Bonloe writes in his book Gordon Parks (1992) that “ Parks became fascinated with photography while working as a writer at the North Coast Limited transcontinental train. He bought a Voightland Brilliant [...] for seven dollars and fifty cents. ” (D, Donloe., 1992. Gordon Parks. p. 65). After being complimented for his work by an executive at the Eastman Kodak Company he quickly became inspired to take more photos and started documenting everything from pets and animals to people and landscapes. He started documenting his work and creating a portfolio as he moved from one freelance job to the next.

In 1941 he held an exhibition of his work documenting Chicago’s South Side black ghetto which won him a place at the Farm Security Administration. This is where he took his most famous photo.


Parks wrote:

My first photograph of [Watson] was unsubtle. I overdid it and posed her, Grant Wood style, before the American flag, a broom in one hand, a mop in the other, staring straight into the camera. Stryker took one look at it the next day and fell speechless.

“Well, how do you like it?” I asked eagerly.

He just smiled and shook his head. “Well?” I insisted.

“Keep working with her. Let’s see what happens,” he finally replied. I followed her for nearly a month–into her home, her church, and wherever she went. “You’re learning,” Stryker admitted when I laid the photographs out before him late one evening. “You’re showing you can involve yourself in other people. This woman has done you a great service. I hope you understand this.” I did understand.

Eventually in 1948 Parks received the job as a photographer and writer for Life magazine for his photo essay on a young Harlem gang leader. This led on to some of his most important photographic work including portrait photography of Malcom X and Mohammid Ali along with a large selection of others. This time also saw him produce his work documenting the life of Lavio da Silve, a poor ill Brazilian boy dying from bronchial pneumonia and malnutrition, which in turn raised enough money to save the child and help his family buy a new home.


Parks is an inspiration for everyone, who in his life managed to achieve a successful photographic career along with also being a successful composer, film director and writer. Gordon Parks sadly passed away as a result of Cancer in 2006 at the very ripe age of 93, but has left us with a legacy and an inspiration that will continue throughout our history. A great person and a great artist.


Gordon Parks, the photographer, filmmaker, writer and composer who used his prodigious, largely self-taught talents to chronicle the African-American experience and to retell his own personal history, died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.

I can not imagine and say that I know what it was like for Mr. Parks to be a photographer in his early years. I am sure he was met with prejudice and harsh racism as he snap away with his camera. I look up to him for tenacity, endurance, perseverance and refusing to give up on his dream of becoming an photographer despite his humble beginnings. He lived to become one of the most critically acclaimed African American photographers in the world. In honor of Black History month….I will remember Gordon Parks as a great African American photographer who open the doors for many photographers to be inspired by his works and capturing the lives of others from behind his camera….just think there were no digital cameras back when he started as an photographer. I wonder what Mr. Parks would shoot with today if he were still alive. May Parks continue to rest in peace…..Parks sure did leave his mark on the photography industry and a lot of photographs for the world to reflect on about the lives of African Americans, civil rights and images of all races for that matter. As I look through the images I wonder has much changed since he started…..shooting the lives of people?


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