How a Discarded Magazine Sparked Gordon Parks’ Life of Creativity

by Viktor Bezic

The youngest of 15 children, Gordon Parks, came into the world the stillborn in the year 1912. Almost left for dead, Parks’s life is saved when Dr. Gordon, who he will be named after, kickstarts his heart by dunking him in ice water (1). His life didn’t get any easier. Raised in Fort Scott, Kansas, there was no shortage of racism. In his Memoir, Parks refers to Fort Scott as “The Mecca of Bigotry” (2). As a student in an all-black class with a white teacher, prejudice was learned at an early age. The teacher would tell the students what their lives would amount to. She said, based on their skin color, the most they could hope for would be to become porters and waiters (3). In high school, similar to many of his black classmates, Parks would be barred from participating in activities outside of the classroom, including sports and any high school social events. The teachers discouraged African American students from pursuing higher education (4).

Tragedy would strike the Parks family, and Gordon’s mother died when he was only 15. This would set off a chain of events that would make him leave Fort Scott, Kansas, and move in with this sister in St. Paul, Minnesota (5). His stay with his sister would be temporary when a fight with his brother-in-law got him kicked out. He’d find shelter at a local pool hall, where he knew a friendly manager, who was kind enough to let him crash there as long as he ran errands and racked balls. After 6 days of being homeless and starving, Gordon fell asleep on a streetcar. Woken up by the conductor, Parks pulls a knife on him. He couldn’t pop the blade as he immediately saw an image of his father and was ashamed. The conductor looked at Gordon’s trembling hands with the knife and asked, “You hungry son?” Parks responded, “No…no sir. Just thought you’d like to buy a knife.” To which the conductor responded, “Nope. I’m not needing one (6).” His turmoil would force him to drop out of school to seek work of any kind. He was so desperate that he became a piano player at a brothel.

Gordon would continue his hunt for stable work. A friend’s father gave him a job as a busboy at a Minneapolis hotel. With the onset of the Great Depression, the hotel would go broke. Once again, Parks was out of the job (7). Parks would then find a gig in a band that’s on their way to New York. He and the rest of his bandmates are promised pay after their show. But once the group arrives in New York, their manager is nowhere to be found. They were effectively ditched with no warning and no way of getting in contact with the manager. Gordon decides to stay in New York and finds a room in Harlem. When he runs out of money, he enlists in the army and heads to Fort Dix. This would guarantee him a bed and 3 meals a day. He wouldn’t have to go hungry for the time being. Upon leaving the army, Gordon returns to Minneapolis and finds a job as a waiter on the North Coast Limited train line.

One day Parks notices a magazine one of the passengers leaves behind. He explores the images of the dispossessed in the spreads of the magazine. Parks would describe these images as powerful. All of the photographers were tackling the evils of poverty that still gripped the nation in 1938. Their work was part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal agency, the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The FSA had renowned documentary photographers, such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Jack Delano. Gordon kept the magazine stashed away in his train bunk. Parks would continuously refer back to the magazine in a cycle of what he described as repeated thinking and looking. From this magazine, Gordon developed a sense of fascination with photography and its possibilities (8).

On a train trip to Seattle, he finds a pawn shop and stops in after seeing a camera in the store window. Parks walks in and asks for the camera. He negotiates down to a price of $7.50. Neither the pawnshop owner nor Parks knew how to load the film in the camera. Luckily another store patron knew how and showed Gordon how to do it (9). When parks returns to Minneapolis, he walks into every large department in the twin cities asking to shoot fashion photography. He lucks out and finds a patron in Mr. Murphy after being repeatedly rejected. Entirely self-taught, within a month, he has his 1st exhibit at a local Camera shop (10). He also had photographs in Murphy’s store, which catches the eye of Marva Louis, the model, and wife of boxing champion, Joe Louis. She contacts him and asks him to shoot for her, but also encourages him to move to a bigger city, Chicago. Where there would be no shortage of work. When one of Park’s close friends, the black painter David Ross, hears about Marva Louis’s advice, he connects Parks with a friend with an empty darkroom at the South Side Community Art Center that needs a photographer. They couldn’t pay him, but they would let him use and live in the studio rent-free (11). Parks ultimately decides to move Chicago with his wife in 1940.

In the same spirit of the documentary photographers he admired, Parks wanted to show the injustice of poverty within America’s inner cities. He Photographs struggling families on the South Side of Chicago. Parks exhibits of these photos at the Art Center alongside his other fashion and landscape work. Jack Delano, whose work graced the magazine that Parks cherished as a waiter on the train car, stopped in from an ad he saw in the paper. Parks couldn’t believe it. Delano told Parks, “You should be working with us. Perhaps you will someday.” Referring to the FSA program. Delano ends the conversation with, “Well, have to catch a plane. Be seeing you. Congratulations.” And with that, Delano was gone. This show won Parks a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. When asked where he wanted to serve his apprenticeship, he chose the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and proceeded to move to Washington, DC, with his young family (12).

In Washington DC, he is stunned by the segregation in the capital. His new boss, Roy Stryker, knowing Parks was not ready for Washington, gives him two assignments without his camera. One is to get a jacket for himself and eat dinner at a restaurant called “White’s House.” Gordon is denied service at the department store. When he goes White’s House, Parks is asked to go the back to get his food. Blacks were barred from eating there. His boss wanted to give him a taste of the segregation of Washington, DC, as a form of motivation to document racial issues of the times. Stryker’s recommendation was to express the feeling he had from being discriminated against and channel them into pictures. He recommended speaking with older Black residents in and around Washington (13).

He strikes up a conversation with Ella Watson, a black caretaker in the FSA building. Parks asks her to tell him about her life. She proceeds to tell him what seemed to be a never-ending nightmare. A father lynched by a mob, a mother’s untimely death, a high school pregnancy, and a husband shot two days before their daughter’s birth. A teenage daughter bearing two illegitimate children, one of which experienced paralysis. And Watson’s struggle to support the whole family on just $1000 a year. Parks would take one of his most well-known photographs. He remembered Grant Wood’s painting at the Art Institute in Chicago “American Gothic”, and had Watson pose in front of the American flag with her mop and broomstick in a similar pose as the painting. Parks would name this photo, “American Gothic”, after the painting that inspired it. The photo would expose the nation to the unfairness of segregation (14). Politicians would sneer at the photo as an indictment of America. Gordon would follow Watson around and document her family, proving to his boss that he could story-tell with his camera.

In 1943 the FSA would close. Undeterred Parks builds a successful photography career. He continues to take photographs for the Office of War Information and the Standard Oil Photography Project. Gordon would proceed to become a freelance photographer for Vogue, and developed a unique style emphasizing the garments in motion. He also maintained his interest in documenting inner cities; when he relocated to Harlem, he created a photo essay on a Harlem gang leader, which won him the position as the first black staff photographer for LIFE magazine. Parks held this position for 20 years, expanding his subject matter to include sports and entertainment, alongside his fashion photography, and inner-city photography. Gordon also had the opportunity to capture portraits of African American leaders, including Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Muhammad Ali (15). He would also become a godparent to one of Malcolm X’s daughters.

In later years he’d expand his creative practice by composing music, writing novels, and directing films. In 1962, he published the autobiographical coming of age novel, “the Learning Tree.” And when it was turned into a movie, he became the first African American to write and direct a feature film. Not only did he write the screenplay, but he scored and produced the movie as well. This would later lead him to the opportunity to direct Shaft in 1971 and its sequel in 1972.

Through his art, Parks pursued what he described as “the common search for a better life and world (16).” He became a master of multiple mediums, developing his writing and poetry and becoming an accomplished composer. Parks, who was never able to finish high school, was awarded the National Medal of the Arts and held more than 50 honorary doctorate degrees. Gordon Parks would succumb to cancer at the age of 93 in New York City and would be laid to rest in his birthplace of Fort Scott, Kansas.

References

  1. Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, by Carole Boston Weatherford and Jamey Christoph, Scholastic Inc., 2015, p. 4.
  2. A Hungry Heart: a Memoir, by Gordon Parks, Washington Square Press, 2007, p. 8.
  3. Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, by Carole Boston Weatherford and Jamey Christoph, Scholastic Inc., 2015, p. 6.
  4. “Gordon Parks.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 9 July 2020, www.biography.com/artist/gordon-parks.
  5. A Hungry Heart: a Memoir, by Gordon Parks, Washington Square Press, 2007, p. 8.
  6. A Hungry Heart: a Memoir, by Gordon Parks, Washington Square Press, 2007, p. 14.
  7. Idem, p.17.
  8. Idem, p. 56.
  9. Idem, p. 63.
  10. Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, by Carole Boston Weatherford and Jamey Christoph, Scholastic Inc., 2015, p. 10.
  11. A Hungry Heart: a Memoir, by Gordon Parks, Washington Square Press, 2007, p. 68.
  12. Idem, p. 75.
  13. Idem, p. 79.
  14. Idem, p. 23.
  15. “Gordon Parks.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 9 July 2020, www.biography.com/artist/gordon-parks.
  16. Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, by Carole Boston Weatherford and Jamey Christoph, Scholastic Inc., 2015, p. 32.

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