The Martin Luther King of Photography




5 minutes reading

If anyone can be called the emancipator of African- American photography, it is Gordon Parks. He was nothing short of a phenomenon. Blessed with different talents, he reached the top in both photography and cinematography. Parks published photo books, a set of four autobiographies, novels and publications combining photography with poetry. In addition, he worked as a musician and composed music for his own films and for a ballet about Martin Luther King. It started modestly. Gordon Parks (Fort Scott, Kansas 1912 – New York 2006) was the youngest of 15 children. The family lived in a simple clapboard house on the prairie. When he was born he had no heartbeat. The doctor on duty acted quickly, dunked the baby in a bucket of ice cold water, whereupon his heart started beating and he began to scream.

'You can do anything as well as a white boy'
His mother’s credo was a decisive factor in his subsequent success. She said to him repeatedly: ‘... and always remember, you can do anything as well as a white boy.’ She died when Gordon was 15. This departure marked the beginning of his adult life. He had to look after himself and as a teenager kept himself alive doing various odd jobs, one of which was as a pianist in a brothel. In 1938 Parks discovered the power of photography through a magazine containing images by photographers such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. He saw that you could utilise the medium to fight social ills such as poverty and racism. For $7.50 he bought a camera and a few rolls of film. The man in the photo shop looked at his initial attempts and advised him to offer his services to a chic local fashion outlet. Here he met Marva, the wife of boxing champion Joe Louis. On her advice, he moved to Chicago and began to build a career in photography. Parks photographed life in South Side, the black ghetto. His work attracted attention during an exhibition and he acquired a grant allowing him, just like Evans and Lange, to go and work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington. In the FSA office he photographed Ella Watson, an African-American woman who had cleaned government offices her whole life. It was a reference to a famous American painting and Parks gave the photo the title American Gothic. After a time, Washington’s subtle racism started to bother him and Parks moved again, to Harlem, New York. Just as he had done at the tentative start of his career, he photographed fashion but this time as a freelancer for the international magazine Vogue. He also explored his new environment and made portraits of notable local residents. In the same period, Parks published two books, in which he outlined his vision for portrait photography and the proper use of flash.

Life Magazine
At the end of the 1940s - Parks was by this time 36 - he came into contact with Life magazine. The editor-in-chief was impressed with his series about a young gang leader from Harlem and offered him a job as staff photographer. Parks was the first African-American on the editorial team of Life, the most influential illustrated magazine in the world. In the 20 years that he worked for the magazine, he developed into a versatile photographer. He made reportages in image and word about racial segregation, fashion, poverty and Broadway. He photographed Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, Mohammed Ali, Barbra Streisand, Malcolm X, Marilyn Monroe and Martin Luther King.

Through his knowledge of life in the black neighbourhoods in the major cities, Parks acquired contacts in Hollywood. In 1969 he realised another first: he was the first black person to direct a mainstream film. For the film The Learning Tree, based on his autobiography from 1963, he also wrote the script and composed the music. His biggest commercial success came two years later. He directed the film Shaft, based on a novel by Ernest Tidyman. The title song by Isaac Hayes, Shaft (can you dig it?) became a global hit and won an Oscar. With Shaft, Parks paved the way for African- American filmmakers such as Spike Lee and John Singleton, as well as his son Gordon Parks jr., who extended the black hero film genre with Superfly. This film is memorable just for the song of the same name by Curtiss Mayfield.

Civil rights movement
The  ́50s and  ́60s in the United States were characterised by great social unrest. Parks committed himself to the civil rights movement, which demanded equal rights for African- Americans. He had good connections with important black leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Parks accepted X’s request to become the godfather of his daughter Quibilah Shabazz. However, he was also attacked by the black community for his nuanced view of the struggle between the races. He saw no reason to hate the whites. In an interview in the New York Times he gave this answer: "Why should I be angry with white people?" And they say, "Well I read your book (The Learning Tree, H.S.) and what you suffered in Kansas." And I say: "Well, that was Kansas. Have you forgotten the fact that Marilyn Murphy gave me my first chance to shoot fashion at her store out in St. Paul? Have you forgotten that Alex Lieberman gave me a chance at Vogue? How Gloria presented herself in such a beautiful way?"

Gloria Vanderbilt
The intimate friendship between Parks and Gloria Vanderbilt, the lily-white designer and heiress of a famous American business family, was a romantic symbol of mutual colour blindness. During a joint interview in 2000 they stated that since they had met, almost 50 years previously, they had never talked about race: "It just didn’t come up." If you look for photos of Parks on the internet, you find numerous portraits of the man. Gordon Parks was a star, an American hero and his photos and films continue to merit further investigation.