The Biography of American Photographer Gordon Parks

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Gordon Parks, August 1963. National Archives

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was one of the most famous photographers of the 20th Century. 

Besides photography, Parks was also a prolific film maker, and author.

He is considered a modern-day renaissance man who exploited his creative talent to campaign for social justice and civil rights. 

Early Life

Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, United States on November 30th, 1912. 

He attended a segregated elementary school where African-Americans were not allowed to participate in extracurricular activities and were discouraged from pursuing tertiary education.

His mother died when he was 14 years old, causing him to leave home and stay with relatives. He later set off on his own and took odd jobs for a living.

A Prolific Photographer

Drawn to photography by images of migrant workers that he saw in a magazine, he bought a camera at the age of 25, and went on to train himself on how to use it.  

In 1942 he won a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship due to his photographs chronicling the lives of African-Americans in Chicago’s impoverished south side. This resulted in him working with the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information as a photographer. 

Duke Ellington playing the piano and smiling in 1943
Photograph of Duke Ellington taken by Gordon Parks for the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, 1943

While working for these institutions, he took photographs that constantly spoke to the social and economic impact of poverty, racism, and other forms of discrimination. One of the most enduring images taken during this period is the American Gothic taken in 1942.

Portrait of government cleaning woman Ella Watson. She has an American flag behind her and there is a mop and broom in the photo. It is called American Gothic and was taken by Gordon Parks in 1942.
American Gothic by Gordon Parks, 1942. Library of Congress

He went on to become the first African-American photographer for Life and Vogue magazines.  

Filmmaker and Director 

In 1969, Parks produced, directed and wrote the screenplay of the Learning Tree. This made him the first African American to direct a major Hollywood film.

The Learning Tree Trailer. Written, Produced and Directed by Gordon Parks

He went on to direct Shaft, a major success that is credited for spurring the African-American action movie genre, and The Super Cops.

Shaft Trailer. Directed by Gordon Parks

However, he was unsuccessful in his attempt to diverge from the Shaft series with Leadbelly. He left Hollywood and concentrated on making television films. 

Trailer for the Gordon Parks directed film, Leadbelly.

Author and Poet

His first book was The Learning Tree that was written in 1963.  His other books include A Choice of Weapons, To Smile in Autumn, Voices in the Mirror, Shannon, and Arias in Silence.

The Learning Tree Book Cover.

He also authored poems such as A Poet and His Camera, Whispers of Intimate Things, In Love, Moments Without Proper Names, and Glimpses Toward Infinity. 

Personal Life 

Parks was married to Sally Alvis in 1933. They divorced in 1961. In 1962 he married Elizabeth Campbell who he divorced in 1973. He later married Genevieve Young. Young was the editor of his book, the Learning Tree. 

Parks had four children who included the filmmaker Gordon Parks Jr. who died in a plane accident in 1979. 

He was still actively evolving his style until March 7th, 2006 when he died of cancer aged 93 years. He is buried in Fort Scott, Kansas, where he was born. 

By the time of his death, he was a recipient of over fifty honorary doctorates and numerous awards.

Gordon Parks in 2000. John Mathew Smith // CC BY-SA 2.0

His works are the reason people in millennia will know what the 1930s were like and the things that shaped history at that time. 

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