And in the Beginning, There Was Gordon ParksBreaking News
tags: film, photography, African American history, Gordon Parks
Because this year marks the 50th anniversary of his groundbreaking 1971 film, “Shaft”; because two fine shows of his pioneering photojournalism are currently on view at the Jack Shainman galleries in Chelsea; because a suite from his influential 1957 series, “The Atmosphere of Crime,” is a highlight of “In and Around Harlem,” now on view at the Museum of Modern Art; and because, somehow, despite the long shadow cast by a man widely considered the pre-eminent Black American photographer of the 20th century, he is too little known, the time seems right to revisit some elements of the remarkable life, style and undimmed relevance of Gordon Parks.
Last born of 15 children, he made a career of firsts.
Born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks in Fort Scott, Kan., on Nov. 30, 1912, he attended segregated schools where he was prohibited from playing sports and was advised not to aim for college because higher education was pointless for people destined to be porters and maids.
Once, he was beaten up for walking with a light-skinned cousin. Once, he was tossed into the Marmaton River by three white boys fully aware that he could not swim. Once, he was thrown out of a brother-in-law’s house where he was sent to live after his mother’s death. This was in St. Paul, at Christmas. He rode a trolley all night to keep warm.
The road to fame had plenty of detours.
At various points in his early years, Parks played the piano in a brothel, was a janitor in a flophouse and a dining car waiter on the cross-country railroad. He survived these travails to become, following a route that was anything but direct, the first Black member of the Farm Security Administration’s storied photo corps; the first Black photographer for the United States Office of War Information; the first Black photographer for Vogue; the first Black staff photographer at the weekly magazine Life; and, years later, the first Black filmmaker to direct a motion picture for a major Hollywood studio. By the standards of a Jim Crow era, Parks’s perseverance rose to the level of the biblical.
“From the start, Parks knew how to make a beautiful picture,” the photography critic Vince Aletti said. And it is true that, long after Parks established his reputation with unflinching photographic series on the civil rights movement, Harlem gangs, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, he continued to move easily between photojournalism and the fashion work for which he maintained a lifelong regard — and which , along with his access to elements of Black life largely invisible to white readers, was among the reasons he was hired in the first place by Life.
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