Gordon Rodger Alexander Buchanan Parks (aka Gordon Parks)
November 30, 1912 – March 7, 2006
Gordon Rodger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of Sarah and Andrew Jackson Parks’ 15 children. Parks’ father earned a living by working as a tenant farmer and doing odd jobs. The family was poor and the town was segregated, which led to Parks having negative experiences with White residents while receiving love and support from his parents and the Black community.
When he was 11-years-old, a group of White bullies attempted to drown Parks by throwing him into a local river but he managed to survive by ducking out of view and swimming to safety. A few years later he began attending the town’s only high school. Local facilities were typically segregated but there weren’t enough resources to support two separate schools. To get around this obstacle, the school allowed Black students to take classes but didn’t allow them to participate in social or extracurricular activities and discouraged any notions of them continuing their education.
Adding to the difficulties of his life was the unexpected death of Parks’ mother when he was 14-years-old. The loss was crushing for Parks because it both emotionally and physically upended his life. Her death resulted in him moving in with his sister and her husband in St. Paul, Minnesota. But a year after relocating to Minnesota, Parks suddenly found himself homeless after an argument with his sister’s husband. Parks had felt upon his arrival in Minnesota that his brother-in-law didn’t like him and didn’t want him living in their home.
Parks spent two weeks riding public transportation to keep warm at night and went for several days without eating after his money ran out. He initially tried to continue attending high school but dropped out after it became too difficult to manage along with everything going on in his personal life. Parks was eventually able to find odd jobs such as being a dishwasher by day and brothel piano player by night which allowed him to earn a bit of money and support himself. He worked these types of odd jobs for several years but continued to struggle as progress would often be followed by a setback.
He found work as a waiter on a transcontinental train and began flipping through the magazines that passengers often left behind. The photographs caught his attention and a series of images of migrant workers, in particular, would change the course of his life. Inspired, at the age of 25, Parks purchased a Voightlander Brilliant camera from a pawn shop for $7.50 and began taking photographs.
Initially, he found work as a portrait and fashion photographer. Some of his first jobs were shooting photos for a department store and portraits for Marva Louis, Joe Louis’s wife. His work brought him to the attention of Eastman Kodak which sponsored his first exhibitions. Those early experiences coupled with encouragement from Mrs. Louis provided the means and motivation for him to relocate to Chicago. His profile continued to rise in the fashion photography world and he further built his reputation shooting portraits of society women.
In Chicago, Parks became involved with the Southside Community Arts Center (SSCAC), which was a part of the New Deal’s Federal Art Project. The organization brought him into contact with several other notable creatives of the time. Despite working in these elite and chic circles, Parks had begun to take photos of people and everyday life on Chicago’s poverty-stricken South Side. That collection resulted in Parks being awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942.
The fellowship helped Parks land a position working in the photography division with Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C. While at the FSA and later the Office of War Information (OWI), Parks transitioned into photojournalism. Traveling the country on assignments to capture images of social conditions, he had to deal with the segregation and brazen bigotry that was endemic at the time. Parks came to see his camera that gave him a voice.
After leaving the FSA and OWI, Parks went on to work for some time on freelance assignments for the Standard Oil Company, Glamour, and Ebony. A 1948 photo essay about gang life in Harlem further raised his profile. He later joined Life as its first Black staff photographer where he would remain for 20 years. To maintain some degree of control of the narratives of his photos, Parks eventually began writing the captions for his images. His work would continue to balance social issues with portraits focusing on racism and poverty as well as key figures and moments from the Civil Rights Movement and fashion.
Yet, Parks would prove himself to be a Renaissance Man outside of photography. He published his first of 12 books in 1947 and also composed blues and jazz music. Parks produced and directed several films, most notably The Learning Tree which was placed on the National Film Registry, and Shaft which launched the blaxploitation genre. He was the first Black person to produce, direct, and score a film for a major Hollywood movie studio. Along the way, he racked up double-digit honorary degrees and various awards which included an Emmy.
Parks was married three times and divorced twice with four children resulting from his marriages. Gordon Parks passed away at the age of 93 from cancer. At the time of his death he had been living in New York City but was buried in his hometown.
- “Biography.” n.d. Gordon Parks Foundation. Accessed August 17, 2021. https://www.gordonparksfoundation.org/gordon-parks/biography.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2021. “Gordon Parks.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. March 3, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gordon-Parks.
- “Gordon Parks Biography, Life & Quotes.” n.d. The Art Story. Accessed August 17, 2021. https://www.theartstory.org/artist/parks-gordon/life-and-legacy/.
- “Gordon Parks.” n.d. International Photography Hall of Fame. Accessed August 17, 2021. https://iphf.org/inductees/gordon-parks/.
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