Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks, was a photographer, musician, journalist, activist, poet, and novelist. He is best remembered for his photo essays for LIFE magazine and as the director of the 1971 film Shaft. He began his photo career at 25 years old with no formal training. The photo clerks who developed Parks’ first roll of film applauded his work and prompted him to get a fashion assignment at Frank Murphy’s women’s clothing store in St. Paul. Parks double exposed every frame except one, but that shot caught the eye of Marva Louis, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis’ elegant wife. She encouraged Parks to move to Chicago, where he began a portrait business for society women. One of his most famous photographs is entitled, American Gothic, Washington DC. The picture was of a black woman, Ella Watson, who cleaned the FSA building standing in front of an American flag with a mop in one hand and a broom in the background. This photo was inspired from the racism he encountered at public places in Washington D.C. He later admitted that the piece was unsubtle and overdone. However, later in his career this piece was viewed a powerful way to show the women’s strength.
Parks went on to work with prominent magazine’s such as Life and Vogue. For 20 years, Parks produced photos on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway, poverty, racial segregation, and portraits of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, and Barbra Streisand. His 1961 photo essay on a poor Brazilian boy named Flavio da Silva, who was dying from bronchial pneumonia and malnutrition, brought donations that saved the boy’s life and paid for a new home for his family.
He later directed a series of documentaries commissioned by National Educational Television on black ghetto life. This lead to the wirting of The Learning Tree (1963), several books of poetry illustrated with his own photographs, and three volumes of memoirs. In 1969, Parks became Hollywood’s first black major film director with his film adaptation of his autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree. Parks also composed the film’s musical score and wrote the screenplay. “Gordon Parks was like the Jackie Robinson of film,” Donald Faulkner, the director of the New York State Writers Institute, once said. “He broke ground for a lot of people — Spike Lee, John Singleton.”
Parks is remembered for his activism, filmmaking, photography, and writings. Co-founder of Essence magazine and one of the early contributors to the blaxploitation genre. Parks himself said that “freedom was the theme of all of his work, not allowing anyone to set boundaries, cutting loose the imagination and then making the new horizons.”