Gordon Parks: The Man and His Art

19 Mar 2006

Gordon Parks (1912-2006)

Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man? Shaft! This line is so familiar to many of us, maybe because Shaft is an icon of black power. But who is the man responsible for Shaft? Well, he’s the late Gordon Parks.

A pioneer in black film-making, a world-renowned photographer, an accomplished author and composer; there aren’t enough descriptions for this Renaissance Man. Many of us will be familiar with his work as a photojournalist with LIFE magazine, but his photos were more than pictures in a magazine. These powerful images are recognized for giving a visual account of the civil rights movement. As a staff photographer with LIFE, he did spreads on gangs in Harlem, Black Muslims, Muhammad Ali, the Black Panther Party, and various celebrities capturing at once the poverty, and beauty of black power, images which have left a mark on Black History.

My fascination with Gordon Parks began in my 3rd year of University through an introduction to his books “A Choice of Weapons” and “To smile in autumn” autobiographies which showcase some of his most powerful photos.

His, is a story of triumph over poverty, of the will not only to survive but also to succeed. He is an inspiration to many not only because of his works’ popularity but because he defied the odds, in a society where the odds are still against young black men. Watching our budding visionaries hunt each other has made it clear that now risking your neck for your brother is passé.

Gordon Parks took risks for his people and won. His signature photograph “American Gothic" shows Ms. Ella Watson standing in front of the American flag, holding a broom and a mop. This is in marked contrast to Grant Wood's “American Gothic” which features a farmer with pitchfork and his wife, standing in front of their farmhouse. It was ingenious and it was controversial at the time; a scathing commentary on the treatment of African Americans. This image would go on to become the symbol of the pre-civil rights era''s treatment of minorities.


."American Gothic" by Gordon Parks

Born to a poor family in Fort Scott , Kansas in 1912, Gordon Parks was the youngest of 15 children and only began to seriously consider photography as a career at the age of 25. Parks’s reason for taking a chance as a photographer is as inspirational as his work.

"I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs," he once said to an interviewer. He had taken up photography during his travels and by 1940 had made his first serious attempts to earn a living from it, as a self-taught fashion photographer in Minneapolis and Chicago .

Although he already had a successful career as photographer he moved seamlessly into filmmaking. In 1968 he became the first African-American to produce and direct a film for a major studio thereby opening more doors. The film was “The Learning Tree,” which was based on the autobiographical novel of the same name written by Parks in 1963.

In 1971, he went on to direct “Shaft” which was such a commercial success that both he and Melvin Van Peebles will be remembered for crafting the genre of blaxploitation films. His determination to “drive failure from my dreams and to push on,” is one credo we should all follow.

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