Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks, Mrs. Ella Watson with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, Farm Security Administration, Washington, D.C.

Gordon Parks, Mrs. Ella Watson with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, Farm Security Administration, Washington, D.C.

Gordon Parks used the camera as his weapon of choice against what he hated most in the universe, racism, intolerance, and poverty. Many of the people Parks grew up with ended up in prison or murdered. The camera was his opportunity to not go the direction of his friends. Parks was highly prolific and highly decorated for his artistic achievements documenting social issues and the African American experience. Parks based his artistic pursuits and life philosophy on the lessons taught to him by his parents and his experience growing up in a segregated town in Kansas.

Parks was inspired by the photographic achievements of artists who worked for the farm security administration during the Depression era. He himself ended up training as a documentary photographer with the Farm Security Administration under Roy Stryker. Stryker pushed Parks to document racial strife in D.C. He is well known for his photographic essay projects, among other projects like writing and directing the movie Shaft, a lifetime achievement all its own. In D.C., Parks experienced the worse discrimination and bigotry he had ever seen. Parks began his photographic essay “American Gothic” based on the life story of Ella Watson. This photo essay is important because it was published in Life Magazine and part of the FSA program. It documented the status of people working in poverty. The photo of Ella Watson holding a broom and mom while standing in front of the American flag may be the most famous of this photo essay. he photographed Watson at home, church, on her way to work. All these photos speak about all the ways people navigate poverty.

Harlem Gang Wars 1948

Harlem Gang Wars 1948

His essay on gang-life in Harlem began after Parks was hired as the first black photographer for Life magazine. There was a need to cover crime and white photographers did not want to go to Harlem. Parks got to know Red Jackson, the light skinned leader of the mid-towners gang. Parks agreed to drive them around in his Buick for a couple of weeks. They ended up becoming good friends. Parks would not show Red with a gun in his hand. Parks destroyed the photos he took along with the negatives. Parks showed the ugliness associated with life.

Red Jackson, Harlem Gang Leader, 1948

Red Jackson, Harlem Gang Leader, 1948

In 1961 Parks’ photo essay focused attention on extreme poverty in Latin America called Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty. In a town outside of Rio de Janeiro, Parks met Flavio de Silva. Flavio and his family became the center piece of Parks’s story. This was one of the two best photo essays for Life magazine. Flavio was the oldest of 7 children. He was very sickly. Everyone lived in a 1 room shack and slept in two boxes. The lived off rice, beans and coffee. Parks commented that the 3 words the children most often said were “shit,” “motherfucker,” and “fuck you.” The cuss words show the detrimental killing affects of poverty. Parks became like a 2nd father to Flavio. He brought him to America for asthma treatment. Parks went back to see Flavio as an adult. he never got out of poverty. Parks learned then that throwing money at poverty does not solve it. Parks also covered poverty in America. He documented the Fontenelle family in Harlem. All of the family members died of drugs, gunfire, aids, or heart disease.

Gordon Parks, Fontenelle family

Gordon Parks, Fontenelle family

Parks was the first person to start documenting the Black Muslims for Life Magazine along with stories on the Black Panthers, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale. Parks worked on these assignments because white reporters were denied access. Parks approached the Nation of Islam through Malcolm X, and Elijah Muhammad, the leader, gave Parks his blessing and access to all rituals within the group. Parks covered the Black Muslims for three intensive weeks in 1969 and in 1970-71. He photographed Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver in front of a picture of H.P. Newton as well as the Black Panther Headquarters.

Gordon Parks, Female Black Muslims, LIFE Magazine

Gordon Parks, Female Black Muslims, LIFE Magazine

Parks is associated with the pre-Civil Rights era (1940s-50s), Civil Rights in the 1960s, the Black Power movement of the 1970s. He used his primary medium, photography, to address social issues, and document the African American experience.


********************If interested, please ask for bibliography*********************


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Filed under Arts of Africa and African Diaspora

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