Gordon Parks is a motion picture producer, director, author and photojournalist. (AFRO Archive)
By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
This year marks the 50th anniversary of “Shaft,” perhaps the quintessential Black action movie of the so-called “Blaxploitation” era of Hollywood. Fifty years since its release in 1971, Shaft has reached mythical status for many and the story’s hero, Harlem private detective John Shaft is arguably the most prodigious Black action god in the history of American film.
Gordon Parks, one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, who directed Shaft, wanted the main character (portrayed by Richard Roundtree) to be larger than life and provide Black Americans in the midst of a 20th century racial reckoning, “a hero they hadn’t had before,” Parks said.
Shaft was a milestone in American cinema, yet for Parks it was one of many gems during the career of this inimitable renaissance man of Black American culture.
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of 15 children of Andrew Jackson Parks, who was a farmer and Sarah Ross. He was 14, when his mother died and Parks was so distraught he allegedly slept next to her coffin. It was one of his last nights in the family’s home. He was subsequently sent to St. Paul, Minnesota to live with an older sister and her husband. But, Parks argued frequently with his brother-in-law and he was ultimately cast into the streets at age 15, to fend for himself; an event that triggered a decade of hardscrabble living for young Parks.
“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs,”
He worked in a brothel as a singer and piano player. He was a busboy and a waiter. He was a semi-pro basketball player. During these years he struggled to eat and keep a roof over his head. In 1929, around the time of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, Parks hopped a train to Chicago and there got a job in a flophouse. But by age 25, and still living a rather transient lifestyle the trajectory of Parks’ life changed dramatically. He was enthralled by photographs of migrant workers he saw in a magazine and soon after he purchased his first camera for $7.50 from a Seattle, Wash. pawn shop and taught himself how to take photos.
“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs,” Parks reflected in his later years. “I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”
He excelled immediately despite his lack of professional training. He snared a fashion assignment at Frank Murphy’s fashion department store, in St. Paul, Minn. and those photos caught the attention of Marva Louis, the wife of the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Joe Louis. She encouraged Parks and his first wife Sally Alvis to move to Chicago in 1940, and there he started a portrait business mainly taking photographs of upscale society women. But he also began chronicling the many facets of life in Black Chicago. That work garnered Parks the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942, and that led to a job in the photography department of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., then later, at the Office of War Information (OWI).
His work at these two agencies consisted mainly of capturing the nation’s social conditions. And it was during this time that Parks began to develop a photography style that chronicled the intimate and graphic details of the lives of the nation’s disenfranchised. It’s a style that made him a world renowned photographer and social commentator.
In 1942, Parks published his first widely seen photographs “American Gothic Washington, D.C.,” which captured Ella Watson, a Black woman who worked on the cleaning crew of the FSA building in D.C. In the black and white photo the bespeckled Watson stares stoically straight ahead while holding a broom, with a mop and an American flag in the background. American Gothic Washington, D.C., Parks’ urban take on the 1930 American Gothic painting by Grant Wood.
He resigned from OWI in 1947 (the FSA disbanded earlier), and moved to Harlem and became a freelance fashion photographer for Vogue. During this time Parks developed an innovative style of fashion photography that captured models kinetically, rather than still poses.
In 1948, Parks’ photo essay of a young Harlem gang leader named Red Jackson landed him another prestigious position, this time as the first Black photographer in the history of Life Magazine, the nation’s leading photography magazine. He worked with Life for more than 20 years until 1972, and during his tenure he captured myriad iconic images of the Black American experience including: Segregation in the South (1956), Duke Ellington (1960), The Black Muslims (1963), Muhammad Ali (1966,1970) and Stokely Carmichael (1967). By the time he formally ended his work with Time he had become one of the greatest American photojournalists of the 20th century. And in the late 1960’s, Parks was making his transition into motion pictures. In 1969, he became Hollywood’s first major Black director with his film adaptation of his semi-autobiographical novel The Learning Tree.
In 1972, he followed his landmark film Shaft, with the sequel Shaft’s Big Score. But, again, Parks was a renaissance man of art and culture. He published several books, including memoirs, novels, poetry and volumes on photographic technique. In 1989, he produced, directed and composed the music for a ballet, “Martin” dedicated to the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Yet, photojournalism was never out of his reach.
From 1996-1998 he published a series titled “A Great Day,” which captured images of dozens of the world’s greatest hip hop artists. The series was a reinterpretation of the 1958 photo by Art Kane of a phalanx of legendary jazz musicians in New York called, “A Great Day in Harlem.”
He once said, “The guy who takes a chance, who walks the line between the known and unknown, who is unafraid of failure, will succeed.”
Parks lived by that mantra until his death March 7, 2006 at age 93.