When Parks was 15 years old, his mother died and he was sent to live with a married sister in St. Paul, Minnesota. He and his brother-in-law did not get along and he was evicted within a few weeks. He slept in trolley cars, loitered in pool halls, played piano in a brothel, worked as a factotum in a whites-only club, and worked as a waiter on a luxury train.
Parks later commented: “I had a mother who would not allow me to complain about not accomplishing something because I was black. Her attitude was, ‘If a white boy can do it, then you can do it, too—and do it better, or don’t come home.’”
In 1938, Parks was struck by photographs of migrant workers in a magazine and bought his first camera, a Voightlander Brilliant, for $12.50 at a pawnshop. The photo clerks who developed Parks' first roll of film, applauded his work and prompted him to get a fashion assignment at Frank Murphy's women's clothing store in St. Paul. Parks double exposed every frame except one, but that shot caught the eye of Marva Louis, boxer Joe Louis' elegant wife. She encouraged Parks to move to Chicago, where he began a portrait business for society women.
Over the next few years, Parks moved from job to job, developing a freelance portrait and fashion photographer sideline. He began to chronicle the city's South Side black ghetto and in 1941 an exhibition of those photographs won Parks a photography fellowship with the Farm Security Administration. Working as a trainee under Roy Stryker, Parks created one of his best known photographs, American Gothic, Washington, D.C. (named after Grant Wood painting American Gothic). The photo shows a black woman, Ella Watson, who worked on the cleaning crew for the FSA building, standing stiffly in front of an American flag, a broom in one hand and a mop in the background. Parks had been inspired to create the picture after encountering repeated racism in restaurants and shops, following his arrival in Washington, D.C.. Upon viewing it, Stryker said that it was an indictment of America, and could get all of his photographers fired; he urged Parks to keep working with Watson, however, leading to a series of photos of her daily life. Parks, himself, said later that the first image was unsubtle and overdone; nonetheless, other commentators have argued that it drew strength from its polemical nature and its duality of victim and survivor, and so has affected far more people than his subsequent pictures of Watson.
After the FSA disbanded, Parks remained in Washington as a correspondent with the Office of War Information, but became disgusted with the prejudice he encountered and resigned in 1944. Moving to Harlem, Parks became a freelance fashion photographer for Vogue. He later followed Stryker to the Standard Oil (New Jersey) Photography Project, which assigned photographers to take pictures of small towns and industrial centers. Parks's most striking of the period included Dinner Time at Mr. Hercules Brown's Home, Somerville, Maine (1944); Grease Plant Worker, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1946); Car Loaded with Furniture on Highway (1945); and Ferry Commuters, Staten Island, N.Y. (1946).
Parks renewed his search for photography jobs in the fashion world. Despite racist attitudes of the day, Vogue editor Alexander Liberman hired him to shoot a collection of evening gowns. Parks photographed fashion for Vogue for the next few years. During this time, he published his first two books, Flash Photography (1947) and Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture (1948).
A 1948 photo essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine. For 20 years, Parks produced photos on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway, poverty, racial segregation, and portraits of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, and Barbra Streisand. His 1961 photo essay on a poor Brazilian boy named Flavio da Silva, who was dying from bronchial pneumonia and malnutrition, brought donations that saved the boy's life and paid for a new home for his family.
In the 1950s, Parks worked as a consultant on various Hollywood productions and later directed a series of documentaries commissioned by National Educational Television on black ghetto life.
Beginning in the 1960s, Parks branched out into literature, writing The Learning Tree (1963), several books of poetry illustrated with his own photographs, and three volumes of memoirs.
In 1969, Parks became Hollywood's first major black director with his film adaptation of his autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree. Parks also composed the film's musical score and wrote the screenplay.
Shaft, Parks' 1971 detective film starring Richard Roundtree, became a major hit that spawned a series of blaxploitation films. Parks' feel for settings was confirmed by Shaft, with its portrayal of the super-cool leather-clad black private detective hired to find the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem racketeer.
Parks also directed the 1972 sequel, Shaft's Big Score in which the protagonist finds himself caught in the middle of rival gangs of racketeers. Parks's other directorial credits included The Super Cops (1974), and Leadbelly (1976), a biopic of the blues musician Huddie Ledbetter.
In the 1980s, he made several films for television and composed the music and libretto for Martin, a ballet tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., which premiered in Washington, D.C. in 1989 and was screened on national television on King's birthday in 1990.
Writing and music
In 1981, Parks turned to fiction with Shannon, a novel about Irish immigrants fighting their way up the social ladder in turbulent early 20th-century New York. Parks' writing accomplishments include novels, poetry, autobiography, and non-fiction including photographic instructional manuals and filmmaking books.
A self-taught pianist, Parks composed Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1953) and Tree Symphony (1967). In 1989, he composed and choreographed Martin, a ballet dedicated to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Parks also performed as a jazz pianist.
Parks was also a campaigner for civil rights; subject of film and print profiles, notably Half Past Autumn in 2000; and had a gallery exhibit of his photo-related, abstract oil paintings in 1981. Parks was married and divorced three times and died of cancer at the age of 93.
Parks is remembered for his activism, filmmaking, photography, and writings. He was the first African American to work at Life magazine, and the first to write, direct, and score a Hollywood film.
Parks was a co-founder of Essence magazine and one of the early contributors to the blaxploitation genre.
In 1984 Parks received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Thiel College, a private, liberal arts college in Greenville, Pennsylvania.
In 1989, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Learning Tree "culturally significant" due to its being the first major studio feature film directed by an African-American. Thus, the film was preserved in the United States National Film Registry.
In 1995, Parks announced that he will donate his papers and entire artistic collection to the Library of Congress. One year later, "The Gordon Parks Collection" was currated.
In 1997, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. mounted a career retrospective on Parks, Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks.
In 2000, the Library of Congress deemed Shaft to be "culturally significant", selecting it for NFR preservation as well.
Parks himself said that freedom was the theme of all of his work, Not allowing anyone to set boundaries, cutting loose the imagination and then making the new horizons.
Parks' late son, Gordon Parks, Jr., directed blaxploitation films, including Superfly.