April 5, 2006 By Kevin Dayhoff
A tribute to the life of a man, in which love, dignity and hard work overcome hatred and bigotry.
Last month on March 7, a cultural icon and one of America’s greatest artists, Gordon Parks, passed away at the too-young age of 93, in Manhattan.
Born in abject poverty, Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks came into this world on November 12, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas, to a tenant farming family.
He was the youngest of 15 children. By age sixteen, at the dawn of the Great Depression in 1928, his mother died and he ended up homeless in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Kenny Irby wrote a poignant March 15, 2006 retrospective on “Poynter on Line” - “Gordon Parks: From Country Boy to Renaissance Man, A True Photographic Idol, IN MEMORIAM: 1912-2006.” In his essay, Mr. Irby called to our attention:
“Delores Johnson -- formerly with The Kansas City Star, now, with The Virginian-Pilot -- photographed Parks in April 2004, at what is believed to be his last extended photo session.
“Parks was the first black photographer to penetrate through racial barriers at Life magazine and many other agencies. During his photo session with Johnson, he recalled how some whites would not allow him to photograph them, how he was often turned away because of the color of his skin”.
There are many fascinating aspects of the Gordon Parks story, which spans many “revolutions” in the history of American public policy, scope and approach of government and social progress.
But, for an artist as prolific and accomplished as Mr. Parks, many folks are not aware of his name, although most are aware of his work.
Mr. Parks credits his mother with having a profound influence upon his life. Isn’t it so with many of us? She taught him that he could do anything to which he set his mind to do.
Mr. Irby reveals, “In one of (Mr. Parks’) autobiographies, "A Choice of Weapons," he says his mother "placed love, dignity and hard work over hatred, she always told me that I could do whatever little white boys did and that I had better do it better."”
Indeed, it was by his work ethic and his enormous talent that he escaped the chains of poverty or simply becoming another sad statistic of the Great Depression.
It is reported that he was famous for being a workaholic and a taskmaster well into old age.
In an excellent 2,700-word memoriam in the New York Times, Andy Grundberg wrote that Mr. Parks was a “photographer, filmmaker, writer and composer who used his prodigious, largely self-taught talents to chronicle the African-American experience.
“But as an “iconoclast, Mr. Parks fashioned a career that resisted categorization.”
For most of the 1930s, he supported himself by playing piano in a brothel, basketball and working as a busboy. It was in 1938, while working on the Chicago to Seattle train as a waiter, Mr. Parks noticed a discarded magazine with photographs from the Farm Security Administration, and became interested in photography.
In 1937, he purchased a “Voightlander Brilliant” camera, for $12.50 at a pawnshop in Seattle. He began free-lancing as a fashion photographer at local department stores in St. Paul, Minnesota.
It was here that he happened to take a photo of the heavyweight boxer, Joe Lewis’ wife, Marva Lewis. Impressed with the photo, she encouraged him to move to Chicago, where he gained attention doing a photo-documentary series of the poorer black areas of town.
In 1941, he had an exhibition of these photographs that earned him a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. The fellowship paid him $200.00 per month so that he could find photography assignments. That year, he joined the photographic documentation project of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, in Washington, D.C., as an intern.
At the age of thirty, Mr. Parks found himself working with photographers such as Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon, Jack Delano, John Collier, Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee, under the direction of Roy Emerson Stryker.
The photograph for which he may be the most famous was “American Gothic,” which he took while he was with the FSA, in 1942. Mr. Grundberg, describes it best in his New York Times article: “it shows a black cleaning woman named Ella Watson standing stiffly in front of an American flag, a mop in one hand and a broom in the other. Mr. Parks wanted the picture to speak to the existence of racial bigotry and inequality in the nation's capital. He was in an angry mood when he asked the woman to pose, having earlier been refused service at a clothing store, a movie theater and a restaurant.”
Landon Nordeman, in a May 1, 1997 paper written on Walker Evans and documentary photography, gives us an idea of the extraordinary fortunate consequence of the FSA photographic documentation project for generations of historians; in 1944, 270,000 negatives and 77,000 prints by FSA photographers was deposited with the Library of Congress in Washington.
The Farm Security Administration was discontinued in 1943, as the nation’s attention continued to focus on World War II. Mr. Parks transferred to the Office of War Information.
Numerous accounts recall, “One of his assignments was photographing the training of the first unit of black fighter pilots, the 332nd Fighter Group. Prohibited from accompanying them to Europe and documenting their participation in the war effort, Parks left in disgust…” (www.gale.com)
He resigned in 1944 and moved to Harlem in New York City and began free-lancing for Vogue magazine.
According to a biographical sketch by Sharisse Foster, “… He then shoots for the Standard Oil Photography project in New Jersey. It is here that he produces some of his most inspiring work including "Dinner Time at Mr. Hercules Brown's Home” (1944), and "Grease Plant Worker” (1946). In these images he depicts the industrial workers in small cities.”
After several years with Vogue, he was able to attract the eye of Life magazine. In 1948, he took a job as a photojournalist with Life that until 1972, took him all over the world, photographing everything from fashion in Paris to the slums of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to celebrity portraiture.
In 1963, he wrote an autobiographical novel, “The Learning Tree,” in which chronicled much of his childhood in Kansas. In 1969, he adapted “The Learning Tree” into a screenplay, wrote the musical score and directed the movie, by the same name.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s, that the baby boomer generation started to take notice of his work, mostly documenting the Black Panther movement and the struggle for civil rights.
But it was when he burst into the world of commercial Hollywood in 1971, with what many refer to now as “blaxploitation films,” that he gained the attention of the emerging pop culture of the children of the 60s.
Yes, this is the gentleman who in 1971 directed "Shaft," starring Richard Roundtree as the cool, black leather jacket-clad private detective.
The movie was released on July 2, 1971. I saw it in Greensboro (or Burlington – as one gets older the mind is the first to go) NC, where I witnessed much of the audience get up and leave the theatre not too long after the movie began…
Remember the music score was by Isaac Hayes? Wikipedia confirmed some old notes that the “movie was adapted by Ernest Tidyman and John D. F. Black from Tidyman's 1971 novel of the same name…. It won an Academy Award for Best Music, Song for Isaac Hayes for "Theme from Shaft". It was nominated for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score…. In 2000, the United States Library of Congress deemed the original film "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.”
Mr. Parks followed this up with "Shaft's Big Score!" in 1972. What is little known is that originally, “Shaft” was written as a straightforward detective movie with a white detective.
However, with the huge success of movie, “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song,” a few months earlier, it was quickly realized that the money was in the neophyte genre of blaxploitation movies and the film was quickly adapted.
Many of the younger readers became aware of this genre of movies when Samuel L. Jackson starred in a remake of the movie in 2000.
Mr. Parks continued to write books, do films for television, pursuing photography and even composing music right up until his death.
Seldom do contemporary artists exhibit talent in so many different ways. His legacy is that of overcoming obstacles with hard work, focus, perseverance and determination.
He was an artist with a profound social conscious, who never lost track of his responsibility to the public, from which he earned a living.
He set the standards high and served as an example for many of us, that life is not about excuses. It is about taking personal responsibility for our lives, rolling up our sleeves and just going it.
Mr. Parks life is a tribute that love, dignity and hard work will always overcome hatred. One wonders what he could have accomplished if he didn’t have overcome the barriers of hatred and bigotry. Wouldn’t it better if we lived in a world, in which love, dignity and hard work could utilize the springboard of an enlightened society where color, race, religion or ethnic background didn’t matter.
Dr. Martin Luther King said, in his famous August 28, 1963, “I have a Dream” speech, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
In 1959, in “The Measures of Man,” Dr. King shared with us, “Man is man because he is free to operate within the framework of his destiny. He is free to deliberate, to make decisions, and to choose between alternatives. He is distinguished from animals by his freedom to do evil or to do good and to walk the high road of beauty or tread the low road of ugly degeneracy.”
History has fortunately judged Gordon Parks by the content of his character and his choice “to walk the high road of beauty.” We have been fortunate enough to benefit from the content of his character and the beauty he left behind.
Gordon Parks is an inspiration for all of us, whether we are artists or community leaders or whatever role we wish to play in making our planet a better world.
Gordon Parks will be missed. May he rest in peace. God Bless.
Author’s note: On March 29, 2006, I wrote a tribute to Gordon Parks in The Tentacle. This memoriam expands upon much of that column, but takes advantage of not having a word limit.
Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster Maryland USA.
He may reached at kevindayhoff AT gmail.com or visit him at www.westminstermarylandonline.net