From the very beginning of his remarkable career, Gordon Parks knew that his camera was a potent weapon. He also knew that the artist could be a powerful force for social and political change. When reports hit the media that Parks, 93, had died March 7, glowing reports poured forth about his matchless contributions. Whether as a photographer, painter, writer, composer or filmmaker, he left an indelible stamp on each of his artistic choices.
Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, on Nov. 30, 1912, Parks was the last of 15 children. It didn’t take him long, particularly after the death of his mother when he was a teenager, to realize that life wasn’t going to be easy or fair. That he was alive at all was miraculous because he was born dead and only stirred to life when a caring doctor dunked him in a bucket of ice-cold water. “I snapped to life screaming,” Parks recalled on a number of occasions, “and I’ve been screaming ever since.”
Most of the screams have been nuanced and deftly concealed in his art. One of the first outcries can be heard in the photo of Ella Watson. Parks was working in Washington, D.C., with the Farm Security Administration when he happened upon Watson, a cleaning lady at one of the buildings he frequented. He posed her against the backdrop of an American flag holding a broom and mop. This was his “American Gothic,” which mocked a famous painting of the same name by Grant Wood.
A miracle of birth and a coterie of caring friends and associates propelled Parks along the path to national acclaim. In 1948 he began his long tenure with Life magazine. For nearly a quarter of a century Parks and his camera were everywhere, chronicling the civil rights movement, the Nation of Islam, gangs in Harlem, fashion shows in Paris. He captured for posterity such luminaries as Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, Gloria Vanderbilt and Ingrid Bergman. Because of his ability to tell stories with his camera, he was asked if he could do the same with a pen. The Learning Tree, published in 1963, was a convincing answer.
Seven years later this gripping autobiographical account of Parks’ childhood in Kansas had another life as one of the best films ever made about the Black experience in America. Subsequent films, such as Shaft and Shaft’s Big Score, were all he needed to get the green light for other projects. There were even television productions, most memorably The Odyssey of Solomon Northup, with Avery Brooks as the protagonist.
For the next generation or so, Parks divided himself into several interesting selves, each one of them phenomenally successful. By the time he slowed down in the late 1990s, he had produced four memoirs, one ballet, three concertos, composed a popular tune, “Don’t Misunderstand,” which is a standard today, one novel, 11 films and was completing a biography of English painter J.M.W. Turner. Add to this a trio of chapbooks that combined poetry, photographs and painting, a slew of speaking engagements and more than 53 honorary degrees from colleges and universities all over the world and its clear he reached heights that, as a high school dropout, he could never have imagined.
But all wasn’t rosy for Parks. Again and again he had to overcome bigotry, unbridled racism and discrimination. There were also personal setbacks—three divorces and the death of his son, Gordon Jr., in a plane crash in Kenya during a film shoot. But these obstacles were no match for his will and certitude; when Parks set his mind to it, he accomplished the difficult right away; the impossible took a little while longer.
As is often said about this mortal coil, no one gets out alive. What matters are the events between the first scream and the last whisper. Parks more than lived up to the notion that “sometimes I feel like a fine horse galloping through the wind.”
And what a glorious and productive run it was.
By Herb Boyd