February 18, 2011

Feb 18 – Gordon Parks: Seeing the World through His Eyes

Gordon Parks

London Fashion Week launches today. This is when all of the photos, from the fashion magazines, literally come alive on the catwalk.

Gordon Parks was a fashion photographer. In fact, he was the first African-American photographer for Vogue magazine. He was also the first African-American photographer for LIFE magazine. As if those accolades were not enough, Gordon was so much more. He was also a talented musician, composer, poet, novelist, journalist and film director; and he was a Civil Rights activist.

Born in November 1912, the youngest of 15 children, to Kansas tenant farmers, Gordon’s early years were defined by poverty and violent segregation; but, his mother always taught him that dignity and hard work would overcome bigotry. Sadly, his mother died when he was 16-years-old, so Gordon moved to St. Paul, Minnesota to initially live with an older sister, where he attended high school, but never graduated. By that time, he was already a gifted, self-taught musician, so when Gordon’s stay with his sister did not work out, he survived on the streets by playing the piano at various establishments, and later, as a singer for a ‘big band’.

By the early 1930s, Gordon had married and started a family. The Great Depression was in full swing by then, so he was often forced to work away from home, in order to find work – including as a busboy and semi-professional basketball player.  Gordon eventually began working as a waiter on the North Coast Limited, a train that ran between Chicago, Illinois and Seattle, Washington. While working, he read as much as he could and he wrote music. During one trip, Gordon picked up a discarded magazine; and he was then introduced to the works of social documentary photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, who were commissioned by the Farm Services Administration (FSA), a government agency designed to call attention to the plight of the poor during The Depression. Gordon recalled in an interview, years later, "[Those photographers were depicting] poverty; and I knew poverty so well."

Dorothea Lange's famous photo, "Migrant Mother"

Seeing those photos inspired Gordon to buy a camera, so he purchased his first one, a Voigtländer Brilliant, for $7.50 at a Seattle pawnshop. Back home in St. Paul, when he had his first roll developed, the photo shop clerks encouraged him to get a job at the local, ladies’ clothing store, as a fashion photographer. Those photos caught the eye of the elegant wife of African-American, heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis, who encouraged him to move to Chicago to start a business as a portrait photographer for Black society women. Paradoxically, Gordon began to also simultaneously document the plight of the poor on the South Side of Chicago. That work earned him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship – becoming the first African-American to be granted the award.  

Gordon used the Fellowship to move to Washington DC and work for the aforementioned FSA, under the directorship of Roy Stryker. At that time, DC was a city divided by race and class, so one of the first photos Gordon was inspired to take was of an office cleaner, Ella Watson, which is entitled, American Gothic. He asked her to stand in front of the flag, because he had had such a frustrating day, having been refused service at a clothing store, movie theater and restaurant, earlier that day. His boss’s initial reaction to the photo was, “That photo is an indictment of America, and could get us all fired!” To this day, it remains one of his most famous, memorable and poignant photos.

Gordon's famous photo, "American Gothic"

1943 saw the disbandment of the FSA, so Gordon was transferred to the Office of War Information, where he, sadly, encountered terrible racism. He eventually moved to Harlem, New York City, in search of freelance assignments.  His work there got Gordon noticed by Vogue magazine’s Art Director, Alexander Liberman, who hired him as a fashion photographer. Gordon was the first African-American to hold this position at the magazine, and he worked there for five years. As always, when shooting fashion, Gordon continued to document what was around him. His 1948 photo essay of a young, Harlem gang leader, landed him a job at LIFE magazine as a photojournalist.  He was also the first African-American to hold this position, as well.

Vogue magazine photo by Gordon Parks

LIFE magazine photo by Gordon Parks

Over the decades, Gordon’s work at LIFE, saw him living in the U.S., as well as France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. His assignments ranged from photographing fashion, to portraits of celebrities such as Muhammad Ali and Barbra Streisand, to the Black Muslim Movement (Malcolm X, in particular) and Black Panther Party, to the Civil Rights Movement, to unbelievable poverty around the world. Probably his most famous experience was when he was sent to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to show the world some of the appalling conditions under which people were forced to live. He met a little boy, Flavio da Silva, who was extremely undernourished and worked very hard to try to help feed his siblings. After the photos were published in LIFE, people from all over the world sent in unsolicited money to help Flavio and his family. $30,000 was raised, and Gordon went back to bring Flavio to a hospital in Denver, Colorado, to try to keep him from dying.  Flavio lived, and additional donations  helped to purchase a new family home in Rio.  Click here to see a very poignant, short interview with Gordon about the friendship he developed with Flavio.

Gordon's photo of Muhammad Ali

Gordon's Cover shot of Barbra Streisand

Photo of Malcolm X by Gordon Parks

Gordon's photo of the Black Panthers at their Headquarters

Gordon's photo at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement

Gordon's heartbreaking photo of Flavio da Silva

Gordon published his autobiography, The Learning Tree, in 1969, which was eventually made into a film – giving him another first, as the first African-American director of a major film; and which also saw him write the film’s screenplay and musical score.  A year later, Gordon co-founded ESSENCE magazine, a fashion/lifestyle magazine for African-American women. The next year, Gordon wrote and directed, Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree, which became a commercial success and remains a classic to this day; and also earned Isaac Hayes an Oscar for the film’s theme song.

Gordon's autobiographical novel
Debut issue of ESSENCE magazine in 1970

ESSENCE's March 2011 cover

Gordon on the set of Shaft, with Richard Roundtree
The next decade saw Gordon continue to write, photograph and paint, as well as be bestowed a National Medal of Arts award, by President Ronald Reagan.

In the late 90s, a retrospective, Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks, was organized in 1997 by the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington DC. It was sponsored by the Ford Motor Company and Time Warner, Inc. and traveled to New York and fourteen other cities.

Gordon in front of one his paintings

Gordon saw more than most of us will ever see; but because of him, we were able to at least catch a glimpse of the world through his varied, creative expression. He managed to do this, despite having a very tough start in life and facing many obstacles.  He once said in an interview, "I suffered evils, but without allowing them to rob me of the freedom to expand."  

2002 photo of Gordon, following a shoot of 100 Black photographers

All of Gordon’s works have been currated at The Library of Congress, in Washington DC. He died peacefully, at his home in New York, in 2006, at the age of 93.

Sources: Wikipedia, Answers.com The New York Times, Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Google Images, YouTube

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