The late Gordon Parks was a self-taught artist who went on to break several barriers while also capturing some of the most stirring images of Black America. The Kansas native was born November 30, 1912.
Parks was born in the town of Fort Scott where his family lived modestly. After the passing of his mother, Parks relocated to St. Paul, Minn.eventually dropping out of high school and taking on a series of odd jobs. At 25, while in Seattle, Parks purchased a camera for $7.50 and began snapping fashion photos and other related images. His work caught the eye of Marva Louis, the wife of boxer Joe Louis, who suggested that Parks and his wife move to Chicago for more opportunity.
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By way of the Farm Security Administration, Parks won a fellowship for his work photographing people in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood. He continued working as a government photographer at the Office of War Information but eventually resigned. Parks once again attempted a run as a fashion photographer, moving to Harlem and landing a freelance gig with Vogue, becoming the magazine’s first Black photographer.
Parks’ 1948 photographic essay of a Harlem gang leader landed him a staff position with Life magazine where he remained for over 20 years. Some of his famous subjects included Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali, among others.
In 1969, Parks became the first Black director of a major Hollywood film, “The Learning Tree,” adapted from his 1963 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Parks also composed the score for the film and wrote its screenplay. He then made a huge splash and helped usher in the Blaxploitation era in 1971 with the film “Shaft” starring Richard Roundtree. A sequel to “Shaft” and the 1976 film “Leadbelly” ended his run of Hollywood productions but he continued to direct films for television.
Parks passed in 2006 at the age of 93.
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