Photographer, ﬁlm maker, writer, composer
Gordon Parks was born on November 20, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas to Sarah and Andrew Jackson Parks. Gordon wrote, "Poppa was a dirt farmer who farmed mostly dirt, but he kept us alive and taught us about love and devotion." The youngest of 15 children, he attended local schools and left Fort Scott at sixteen after his beloved mother died.
His mother's final wish for him was that he be sent to live with a sister in St. Paul, Minnesota. She knew that there, far away from the poverty and racial bigotry he had endured, he would find the inspiration their small dirt farm never provided. After a disagreement with his sister's husband, and in the brutal cold of a Minnesota winter, Gordon found himself homeless and struggling to survive by various means, including playing a piano in a brothel, mopping floors, and washing store windows. He tried to finish high school in Minnesota, twice.
Later while working as a waiter on a transcontinental train, he was struck by photographs in a magazine and bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brilliant, for $12.50 at a pawnshop. He started working in fashion and his photographs caught the eye of Marva Louis, the elegant wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. She encouraged Parks to move to Chicago in 1940, where he began a portrait business and specialized in photographs of society women.
receiving the first fellowship in photography from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation in 1941, Gordon chose to work with Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C. It was at the FSA that Gordon took his first professional photograph, pictured at right, American Gothic
When the FSA closed in 1943, Parks became a freelance photographer, balancing work for fashion magazines with his passion for documenting humanitarian issues. His 1948 photo essay on the life of a Harlem gang leader won him widespread acclaim and a position as the first African-American staff photographer and writer for LIFE
magazine, then by far the most prominent photojournalist publication in the world. Parks would remain at LIFE
magazine for two decades, chronicling subjects related to racism and poverty, as well as taking memorable pictures of celebrities and politicians.
His talents also led him to film making, writing, music, and poetry. He was the first African-American to direct a film for a major studio, Warner Brothers. Based on his biographical novel, The Learning Tree
, Parks penned the screenplay and composed the musical score, along with producing and directing the film. That, his first full-length film, was shot in Fort Scott, and is based on his childhood there. More films were to follow, including Shaft
Also to his credit is a piano concerto, a symphony for orchestra, a ballet honoring Martin Luther King [Jr.], and twenty-three books. He received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan in 1988. Parks spent much of the last three decades of his life expanding his style and conducting experiments with color photography. He continued to work up until his death in 2006. He received over 50 honorary doctorates in his lifetime — a testament to living a life of overcoming barriers and achieving outstanding success both artistically and professionally.
Gordon Parks Museum
More can be learned about this renowned artist at the Gordon Parks Museum, located in the Ellis Family Fine Arts Center on the campus of Fort Scott Community College, 2108 S. Horton. The museum houses a collection of 30 of his photographs which include[s] many of his iconic works such as American Gothic, Flavio da Silva, Red Jackson, Muhammad Ali,
and Ingrid Bergman at Stomboli
The Museum also includes memorabilia such as one of his cameras, his writing desk, awards and medals, paintings and drawings, plaques and honorary doctorates, clothing, his personal collection of LIFE
magazines, and much more.
These gifts have made the collection substantive and significant. The Gordon Parks Museum is proud to preserve and perpetuate the legacy of this "Renaissance Man." Through collected works, displays, and exhibits at the museum, the creative genius of Gordon Parks continues to inspire generations to come.
[Photo captions, left to right, read]
· [Gordon Parks]
· A young Gordon Parks with his camera.
· Parks in the director's chair.
· While working at the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C. Gordon took his first professional photograph, American Gothic
. This memorable photograph of charwoman Ella Watson standing before the American flag holding a broom became his signature image.
Parks, Gordon. American Gothic
1942, photograph. Washington, D.C.