Culture Trips

Gordon Parks: Beautiful photos of an ugly history

For clues as to why, she suggests, you only need look at Parks’s life story. Born in the small rural town of Fort Scott, Kansas, he was the youngest of 15 children. The family were dirt-poor, and schools were segregated; once, when he was 11, a gang of white boys hurled him into the local river, believing he couldn’t swim (a scene he recreated when he revisited the town in 1963, capturing a boy’s hand reaching eerily out of the water). Following his mother’s death when he was 14, Parks migrated – like so many African Americans of his generation – to the north. In the bustling city of St Paul, Minnesota, Parks earned his first wage playing piano in a brothel.

After taking a job as a railroad porter, he bought a camera in a pawnshop in 1937, inspired by photos by the great documentary photographer Dorothea Lange. Despite being entirely self-taught, within a few years he was working alongside many of the leading photojournalists of his era (including Lange) in the Farm Security Administration’s photography section, documenting America’s landscape and its people through a time of tumultuous change. 

Commissions for Vogue, the black-focused magazine Ebony and Life magazine followed; Parks soon became the first African American photographer to be taken on as staff at Life, one of the biggest magazines of its day. In the 1970s, he turned his attention to movies, directing the pioneering Blaxploitation film Shaft. He also composed music and wrote indefatigably, including poetry and several memoirs. His last poetry collection was published just months before his death in 2006.

There was almost nothing her father couldn’t do if he wanted, says Leslie Parks with a laugh: he had the kind of energy that burned up the room. “There was always this moving forward with him,” she says. “No giving up or doubt.”

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