Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks



A pivotal moment in the life of Gordon Parks came one morning while shaving. In his autobiography Voices in the Mirror, he writes, No doubt it was wisdom that taught me that my most dangerous enemy could be myself. I have known both misery and happiness, I have lived in so many different skins it is impossible for one skin to claim me. And I have felt like a wayfarer on an alien planet at times—walking, running, wondering about what brought me to this particular place, and why. But once I was here the dreams starting moving in, and I went about devouring them as they devoured me.


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With this photograph and many others soon to follow, Parks’ career in photography began to soar. He became the first African-American to photograph for Life and Vogue magazines. His documentary work included images of Harlem, including the world renowned “Harlem Gang Essay”, the 1960’s civil rights movement, the Black Panthers organization, the Ingrid Bergman-Roberto Rossellini love affair and much more. He traveled the world with Life magazine, but then traveled home to document his hometown and how it had changed. Some of most famous portraits are of Muhammad Ali, which are insightful and some surprisingly sensitive. Parks’ later work includes color and abstraction photography. Like souls touching, poetry, music, paint, and the camera keep calling, and I can’t bring myself to say no.

In addition to his photographic work, Parks continued his music career. He composed orchestral music, film scores and wrote the ballet, Martin, which was about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He composed orchestral music, film scores and directed several motion pictures including The Learning Tree, based on his novel by the same name. The book was based on Parks’ early life in Kansas. Parks has said that the title of the book was inspired by his mother, who once said, “you’re to let this place be your learning tree. Trees bear good fruit and bad fruit, and that’s the way it is here. Remember that.” His film, The Learning Tree was placed on the National Film Registry in 1989. His first film, however, was a documentary on Flavio. He was the first African-American to produce, direct and score a film for a major Hollywood Studio, Warner Brothers. Later he produced films and film scores including Shaft, The Super Cops, Leadbelly, and Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey. In addition, he was the composer of numerous blues and jazz tunes.

He published a total of 12 books, including three autobiographies. Parks’ first book was published in 1947. It was an instruction manual entitled Flash Photography. During the 1970s, Parks used a combination of photographs and poetry for his next series of books. Other books followed with the latest book published in 1996 entitled Glimpses Toward Infinity. A man of many talents, Parks included poetry, photography and his new endeavor, painting in this inspirational book.

Parks has received more than 24 honorary degrees, including Maryland Institute of Fine Arts, Syracuse University, Boston University of Public Communication, and the Kansas City Art Institute. Other awards and honors include, Photographer of the Year by American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1964, Philadelphia Museum of Art Award and the Art Directors Club Award in 1964. In addition, he won the Mass Media Award and an award for outstanding contributions to better human relations, both in 1964. 1966 marked more recognition, as he received the Notable Book Award from the American Library Association for his book A Choice of Weapons. Nikon recognized Parks in 1967 with the Nikon Photographic Award for promotion of understanding among nations of the world. Parks received an Emmy Award in 1968 for best television documentary, Diary of a Harlem Family. The list of awards continues with the Carr Van Anda Award in journalism in 1970. Parks has been inducted into the Black Film Makers Hall of Fame, the NAACP Hall of Fame and now the International Photography Hall of Fame. He was given first place at the Dallas Film Festival in 1976 and has been given the Governor’s Medal of Honor from the State of Kansas. In addition to the above listed, Parks has received countless awards, medals and honors.

Parks married Sally Alvis in 1933. The couple divorced in 1961 with three children: Gordon Parks, Jr., Toni Parks Parson, and David Parks. In 1962 Parks married Elizabeth Campbell, with whom he had one daughter, Leslie. Just 11 years later, they divorced. That same year of his second divorce, he married again to Genevieve Young. He had three grandchildren and one great grandchild. He died of cancer at the age of 93 while living in Manhattan, and is buried in his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas.



Portrait: Self-Portrait, 1948
Full Screen: The Invisible Man, Harlem, New York, 1952
Right: American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942
Bottom Right: Model Wearing Nursemaid’s Kerchief, 1952, IPHF’s Permanent Collection