Gordon Parks: Photographer, Musician, Writer, Director
Sometimes you come across an individual whose life was such an inspiration, you wonder why most people have never heard of them, or at least have never had the opportunity to learn of such a person’s accomplishments. The photographer Gordon Parks is such a person and I’m dedicating this blog post to him. If you’ve heard the name, then I’m pleased. If you know of his life and impact on photography, then I’m delighted. If you’ve never heard of Gordon Parks, allow me to educate you.
Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912. His parents were farmers, and Parks was forced to live his childhood under the shadow of segregation, as was the common way of life back then. He attended a segregated elementary school where blacks were banned from sports or social activities, and when he expressed a desire to attend college, his teacher simply dismissed the idea as “a waste of money”.
When Parks was 11 three white boys tossed him into a river knowing that he couldn’t swim. He survived. His mother died when he was 14, and he was sent to live with relatives, but pretty swiftly Parks found himself homeless. He found work at a gentlemen’s club, and furthered his education by reading books from the club’s library.
By the age of 25 Parks had found his way to Seattle, where he developed an interest in photography and bought his first camera. He began work as a portrait artist in Chicago, but won a scholarship allowing him to work under the photographer Roy Stryker. It was during this time that Parks created his most iconic image – a black woman with a mop in one hand, a brush in the other, standing in front of the American flag. He named this piece American Gothic, Washington, D.C., after the famous Grant Wood painting American Gothic. At first Stryker hated this photograph, calling it an indictment of America (which, in my opinion, it was) however he encouraged Parks to keep working with Ella Watson, the woman in the photograph.
In 1948 Parks won a job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine, becoming one of the most celebrated photojournalists in the United States. Parks also found time to compose music, write memoirs, fiction and poetry, and even direct the 1971 detective film Shaft, inventing the blaxploitation genre almost by accident.
From quite terrible beginnings, Parks had turned his life around. He never dismissed his roots and the awful prejudice he suffered back in Kansas, and worked via his photography to help bring an awareness of the human rights abuses that segregation causes to the eyes of people who were, as yet, not seeing clearly enough. He was a pioneering photographer and, as I am sure you’ll agree with me, a very great man. Parks died on March 7, 2006, in New York City, at the age of 93.
“There’s another horizon out there,” Parks once said. “One more horizon that you have to make for yourself and let other people discover it, and someone else will take it further on, you know.”
Parks was a man noted for bringing the horizons he uncovered to the eyes of others. I hope by relating Parks’ story I have managed to broaden your own horizons a little.
To illustrate this post, I’ve chosen an art photograph I’ve called Alignment. I took it while on a walk near the Old Mill Station. There’s something decidedly odd about this composition and comments from other viewers have confirmed that. So much so that I’ve also named it “Misaligned Symmetry” and “Misaligned Alignment”. It is one of my favourite discoveries to date, even while I felt how odd it was as I composed it. It could be the way the beautiful black lamp-posts are staggered when normally we see lamp-posts perfectly aligned. Or it could the stairs, which are normally straight, yet here they are at an angle. Or even the bridge girders also leading leading the eye with lines going in different directions and introducing the curved arch. And while we have angles, we have straight lines, continuity, and even a sense of motion. Whatever it is, I feel it’s compelling.
It was as if I had stepped beyond the horizon of normality and into a slightly different world. I ‘m delighted that I’ve been able to take you over this horizon with me. You can learn more about Gordon Parks’ celebrated career at any of the links below. As always thanks for viewing, reading and sharing!