Gordon Parks Biography

Humanitarian photographer Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was born into segregated Kansas in 1912. Gordon Parks' photography style developed from a fellowship chronicling extreme poverty and social conditions for the Farm Security Administration, under the mentorship of Roy Stryker. Gordon Parks also worked as a filmmaker and memoirist, breaking color boundaries across the board. Gordon Parks captured arresting images highlighting deeply problematic oppression and racism across the nation, including the notable American Gothic, Washington, D.C. (1942), featuring F.S.A. chairperson Ella Watson posed with a broom and mop, staring blankly ahead and standing in front of an unfurled American flag. Gordon Parks turned toward freelance photography when the F.S.A. shuttered in 1943, going on to work as LIFE Magazine’s first African-American staff photographer and writer. In his photography, Gordon Parks strived to capture subjects tangential to race and socioeconomics, shooting on staff for LIFE until 1970; there he also made portraits of celebrities and activists like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Photographer Gordon Parks’ efforts recording the early Civil Rights Movement remain some of the most famous photographic works of the area. Gordon Parks worked in film as well, directing 1971’s feature full-length Shaft. Gordon Parks continued to make photographs until his death at 93 in 2006.

Gordon Parks was always a fan of LIFE and other visual magazines of the time, but a chance meeting with contributing photographer and Magnum Photos agency founder Robert Capa redirected his professional course. Then, Gordon Parks bought his first camera. He worked hard to earn a one-year contract position documenting World War II-era America for F.S.A., eventually gaining contemporaries like writers Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin as well as LIFE photographers like Margaret Bourke-White and W. Eugene Smith. Gordon Parks didn’t only focus on images evoking social justice, he also shot for fashion spreads with work appearing in LIFE. By 1989, Gordon Parks was working in film, releasing his first movie (an adaptation of the novel he also wrote), The Learning Tree, a coming-of-age story focused on a black teenager in 1920s Kansas. His 1971 blaxploitation film Shaft gained critical acclaim. Gordon Parks also helped co-found Essence magazine in the 1970s.

Harlem Gang Leader (1948), Gordon Parks’ second major assignment for LIFE, spans a month of 17-year-old gang leader Red Jackson as well as members of his gang. Gordon Parks has said he wanted the series to highlight the violence these young people faces as well as the potential possible if social service agencies intervened. One image which shows Jackson’s young, plaintive face illuminated by the sunlight creeping in front a cracked window in an otherwise dim room; the series helped land Park’s invitation to the magazine’s staff. After the publication of Harlem Gang Leader, Gordon Parks also started to assert more control over the message of his work, adding text himself moving forward. 1952 saw the publication of Emerging Man, another famous Gordon Park’s photo; the image was inspired by Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man (1952), which follows an African-American living alone underground. Gordon Park’s photography shows an African-American man peeking out from a manhole in a street, drawing up strong feelings of isolation and loneliness. 

In 1956, Gordon Parks traveled to the segregated south on assignment for Life, creating a photo essay entitled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” which chronicled the daily lives of an extended family in Alabama. The portfolio’s presentation in full color at a time when most photo essays were still being published in black and white lends further strength to Parks’ depiction of the Jim Crow south. Most of the photos for the Life series were presumed lost until they were rediscovered in 2011. A selection of the work, found in a folder labeled “Segregation Story,” was released upon discovery and shown concurrently at the High Museum and Jackson Fine Art in 2015. Gordon Parks’ experiences as an African-American photographer exposing the realities of segregation are as compelling as the images themselves. While travelling through the south, Gordon Parks was threatened physically, there were attempts to damage his film and equipment, and the whole project was nearly undermined by another Life staffer. The Causey family, headed by Allie Lee and sharecropper Willie, were forced to leave their home in Shady Grove, Alabama, so incensed was the community over their collaboration with Gordon Parks for the story. 

Gordon Parks left the world an enormous and astute body of work documenting difficult aspects of American culture all the way up until his death. Gordon Parks has had works hung at countless museums and galleries and his collections continue to enjoy posthumous.