Monday, February 27, 2012

African American History - Remembering Gordon Parks

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchannan Parks: Born November 30, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas.

He was stillborn -- no heartbeat, declared dead by the family doctor, and put aside for later burial. Another doctor in the delivery room had an idea, and immersed the newborn in ice-cold water. The shock caused his heart to start beating, and the baby was soon crying and healthy, and named for Dr. Gordon, who had saved his life. In the more than ninety years of his life, Gordon Parks became internationally renowned as a Photographer, Writer, Musician, Poet, Journalist, Motion Picture Director and Composer.

Parks grew up poor in Fort Scott, Kansas, and the youngest of 15 children. One of his early memories was hearing his all-black class told by their white schoolteacher, "You'll all wind up porters and maids." Following the death of his mother when he was 15, he left Kansas for Minnesota. Between bouts of homelessness, he earned rent as a piano player in a bordello. He also worked as a busboy, a Civilian Conservation Corpsman, and as his teacher had predicted, as a porter and later waiter on the transcontinental North Coast Limited.

In 1941, Parks met Ella Watson, a government cleaning woman, who became one of his most important subjects. His best-known photograph of Watson is American Gothic, 1942, today an icon of American culture. It shows a dignified woman posed like the farmer in Grant Wood’s 1930 composition, holding a broom and mop in place of the farmer’s pitchfork. Behind her hangs the American flag.

At 25, he bought a used camera for $7.50 and began working as a self-taught freelance photographer, focusing on everything from fashion to the effects the depression in Chicago's slums.

Parks chose to fight the poverty and racism of his past, selecting a camera as his principal “weapon.”

Parks was a close friend of Muhammad Ali, and godfather for Malcolm X's daughter Quibilah Shabazz. He was a co-founder of Essence magazine, and wrote a ballet called Martin, in honor of King.

By 1944, he was the only black photographer working for Vogue, and in 1948 he became the first black photographer at Life, the most prestigious magazine of its day for photography. Eventually Life sent him to France, Italy, and Spain, and stateside he became known for his photos documenting the civil rights movement.

He reported on segregation in Alabama in 1956, the growing Nation of Islam movement in the 1960s, and the assassination of Martin Luther King. In his spare time, he also directed a few low-budget films.

His art was about social issues such as poverty, race, segregation and crime. It also enhanced our understanding of beauty, nature, childhood, music, fashion and memory.

His autobiographical first novel, The Learning Tree (1963), and his subsequent autobiographies demonstrate that he had learned to value his parents' hard work, compassion, integrity, and capacity for hope as well as to fear the brutality and perversity of personal and institutionalized racism.

He attended and took photos at the Civil Rights March on Washington, 1963.

He died on March 7, 2006 (aged 93) in New York City.

I have always admired the works of Gordon Parks who recorded an accurate documentation in his writings, and black and white photography, which allows future generations to understand the truth about life and the history of the United States during his personal lifetime.


all photos by Gordon Parks

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