Over a career that spanned more than half a century, Gordon Parks wrote books and poetry, composed music, and directed movies. He was the first African American to direct a film for a major Hollywood studio. But Parks, who died Tuesday at his home in New York, was best known as a photojournalist.
He photographed American workers, international movie stars, gang members, and people living in extreme poverty. "You'll see people with their heads cut open. You'll see pictures of people starving to death. You'll see beautiful women," Parks said at a major retrospective of his work eight years ago, Half Past Autumn: the Art of Gordon Parks. "It's a whole slice of life that I've lived through. You can call it art, or you can call it living. Possibly the word for it is living art."
Born in Kansas in 1912, Gordon Parks was sent at the age of 15 to live in Minneapolis with a sister and her husband, when his mother died. After an argument, his brother-in-law threw him out, and Parks was forced to drop out of school and support himself. "At 15 years old I had to become a man overnight. That was it. I was on my own," Parks recalled.
He worked as a busboy at a hotel, a piano player at a brothel, and a porter and dining car waiter on a train before discovering photography in 1937.
Five years later, in 1942, Parks was awarded a fellowship to work as a photographer with the U.S. government in Washington, documenting poverty in America. His boss advised him to talk to some of the older black residents of the capital. The result was his most famous image, a portrait of cleaning woman Ella Watson. He called the work "American Gothic" after a famous painting by Grant Wood.
"She had her mop and broom and I stopped her, and said, 'Can I photograph you?'" Parks recalled in 1998. "She said, 'Yes, I don't mind. Where do you want me to stand?' I looked up and saw the American flag hanging from the ceiling. I thought of Grant Wood and the picture he made of the farmer and the lady with the pitchfork. It all hit, and I said, 'Right in front of that flag.' I said, 'Look right into the camera.'"
In 1948, Parks was hired by the prestigious Life magazine as its first black photographer. By the 1960s, he was considered one of America's top photojournalists. "I'm very thankful to photography," he often said. "I have often said I tried to use it as a weapon against poverty, against racism, against bigotry, against anything I disliked in this universe."
Parks has also credited photography with giving him the freedom to write, compose, and direct films, including the groundbreaking 1971 action hit, Shaft. But the film that got him started in 1969 was based on his autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree. Gordon Parks not only directed, but also wrote the screenplay, served as executive producer and composed the score
The Learning Tree -- which was among the first movies placed on the U.S. National Film Registry -- is the story of a 15-year-old African American boy named Newt, growing up in rural Kansas in the 1920s. Newt is intelligent and ambitious, and plans on going to college. But in the film, his white teacher tells him she thinks it is "an awful waste of money and time" for black students to go to college, because they will just "wind up as cooks and porters in any case."
The memory of the real-life incident on which that scene was based remained vivid for Gordon Parks many decades later. Although he never did go to college, he received numerous awards and recognition for his work, including the prestigious National Medal of the Arts and over 50 honorary doctorates, one of which he dedicated to the high school teacher who told him college was a waste of his time.