A visionary sees what is and what will be. Lives tomorrow in the present tense. Truly understands contemporary for what it is: temporary. Gordon Parks was a visionary in the truest sense of the word. A visionary sees obstacles to achieving goals and makes them into examples of how to win. Mr. Parks was responsible for so many firsts in his lifetime before succumbing to cancer at the age of 93.
Born on November 30, 1912, Parks was the last of 15 children growing up in Fort Scott, Kansas during WWI and the Great Depression. Parks learned first hand about the need for attention and the desire to be heard. For Black America, in an era where our very existence on a human level was under assault on social, legislative and economic levels, Gordon Parks, decades before Cliff Huxtable and family invaded the televisions of America, provided a glimpse of us. He granted America access into our lives and experiences and introduced a level of normalcy to the Black experience that was previously ignored or blocked out from view. Not shucking and jiving, not waging wars with the hate that hate produced, not the victims of the White power structure, but as people. Citizens. Neighbors.
With a $7.50 pawnshop purchased camera at the age of 25, Gordon Parks began his career as a fashion photographer in Chicago. He got his first major work as the sole Black photographer for the Farm Security Administration, an FDR New Deal construct designed to garner sympathy for America’s farm owners. He became the first Black photographer at Vogue Magazine and in 1948 he began his well-chronicled career as the first Black photographer for Life Magazine. His tenure at Life lasted 20 years, and was not simply token patronage. Parks transcended the role of photographer and became a chronicler of global struggle and poverty. His photo essays were legendary, most powerful of which was the 1961 tale of a poor, sick Brazilian boy, Flavio de Silva, which touched so many, that the boy was able to travel to America for a life changing surgery and returned to Brazil with a new home for him and his family.
Gordon Parks captured the spirit of the activist without the anger. He understood the pressure of being Black in America during that treacherous time and was able to present it with nobility. He was Life’s eye during the Civil rights movement, a position that allowed him an intimacy that his white counterparts couldn’t match for obvious reasons. He learned to channel the rage of his youth into constructive endeavors. Outside of his over 300 photos published in Life Magazine, Parks was a writer, a poet, an accomplished essayist and even a composer, including “Martin,” a ballet based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As skilled as he was capturing the lives of others, Parks possessed a keen self- awareness and an eye for introspection. He could look within and critique both himself and his people. He had numerous autobiographical writings and works, the greatest of which was The Learning Tree. Originally an account of his youth growing up in Kansas, The Learning Tree was published in 1963. Six years later, Parks became the first Black director of a major mainstream released film when it was brought to life in cinema. It was the first film written, directed and produced by a Black man. Critically acclaimed as well as historic precedent, it was one of the first 25 American films originally inducted into the Library of Congress’ Film Registry in 1989.
Visualizing the realism of our lives in actuality.-AZ.
Park’s genius at making the underground mainstream without co-opting soul and integrity was a tightrope walk that few have ever successfully walked. Perhaps his most stylistic example of this walk was the creation of perhaps his most popular addition to pop-culture-John Shaft. A shining example of Black manhood, Shaft (1971) elevated the genre of blaxploitation film. Shaft was on the right side of the law, intelligent, uncompromising, vulnerable, and masculine at a time when most depictions of Black males were drug users, and pimps, and the underbelly of society. Though the film was targeted for Black audiences, the production values were significantly higher than many movies of that genre and John Shaft was a rare three-dimensional characterization. He walked the line of law but stayed squarely on the side of justice without the righteous indignation. He was “real.”
Seizing the moment. It is perhaps a visionary’s best attribute. So it is entirely appropriate that for all the wonderful creations and art forms mastered by this modern renaissance man, that his greatest talent and most acknowledgement comes from his greatest passion: photography. Mr. Parks was a master at capturing the moment. Freezing those most intimate, most important, most innocuous, innocent instances, be they the glare of an imposing champion, or a tear on the cheek of a crying Black child, was Gordon Parks’ greatest triumph. In 1999, Parks even conducted the famous "A Great Day In Hip-Hop" photo shoot for XXL magazine, which was in front of the same building as the celebrated "A Great Day in Harlem" jazz photo. He made us real. Human. Relevant. It was his greatest gift to our people. I for one am eternally grateful for Gordon’s gift of visibility and viability. Because of Gordon Parks America could see Black people for what we truly are – PEOPLE. We will forever be in his debt.
Below is a list of Gordon Park’s various works. His accomplishments could never properly be captured on paper:
Camera Portraits (1948) (Documentary)
The Learning Tree (1964) (Semi Autobiographical)
A Choice of Weapons (1967) (autobiographical)
Born Black (1970) (Compilation of essays and photographs)
To Smile in Autumn (1979) (autobiographical)
Voices in the Mirror (1990) (autobiographical)
The Sun Stalker (2003) (Biography on J.M.W. Turner)
A Hungry Heart (Nov. 1, 2005) (autobiographical)
Compilations of poetry and photography
Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera
Gordon Parks: Whispers of Intimate Things
Gordon Parks: In Love, Moments Without Proper Names
Arias of Silence
Glimpses Toward Infinity
Eyes With Winged Thoughts (released Nov. 1, 2005)
Flavio ( 1961)
Diary of a Harlem Family (1964)
The World of Piri Thomas (1968)
The Learning Tree (1969)
Shaft’s Big Score (1972) Director and Composer
The Super Cops (1974)
Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (1984)
Moments Without Proper Names (1987)
Martin (1989) (ballet about Martin Luther King)
Shaft’s Big Score