The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Gordon Parks:
American artist, 1912-2006

Mar 27, 2006

Gordon Parks, photographer, musician, poet, writer, artist of America during his long life, died March 7.

Parks was born in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas in some of the worst years of Jim Crow. His farmer father and mother had 15 children. His mother died by the time he was 15. In the Depression years, he left Kansas, traveling widely to find work. While working as a waiter on a train, Parks saw a magazine with documentary photographs taken for the Farm Security Administration. This incident sparked his interest in photography.

Parks credits a variety of people who gave him a helping hand when poverty, lack of education and above all, racism would normally have prevented his achieving his ambitions. Out of the struggles during the Great Depression came a project that enlisted artists: working for the Farm Security Administration, they painted and photographed the country as it truly was. What Parks called “an unusual white man” working for the FSA in totally segregated Washington, D.C. gave Parks his first job as a photographer in 1942. The next year certain politicians succeeded in dismantling the FSA. As Parks put it, “Its picture files, crammed with America’s poor and dispossessed, practically amount to the government’s indictment of itself.”

Parks was then sent to photograph black fighter pilots training to enter the war in Europe. Just as the squadron was assigned to the front, Parks was pulled off the job. The racists in Washington didn’t want to give too much publicity in their segregated army to what black fighter pilots were accomplishing.

Still in the 1940s, Parks talked himself into a job for Life, the most widely read magazine to cover American society. In those early years, he created a photo essay on gangs in Harlem. He also was assigned to do high fashion in Paris, finally achieving a salaried position he held for 20 years, the first black photographer on Life’s staff.

When the magazine assigned him to live in Paris in the 1950s, he took his wife and children. Like other black artists, like writer Richard Wright, he enjoyed living in the freer and less racist atmosphere in France. He was even inspired to try musical composition, writing a piano concerto published and performed in 1952.

While on the staff of Life, Parks photographed everyone from fashion models, to movie stars and kings and generals. But his most famous photograph is the one called “American Gothic,” taken when he first went to work at the FSA in 1942. The woman in the photo holding a mop and broom in front of the American flag is Ella Watson, a black cleaning woman in the building.

In fact, the poor and desperate in both American society and all over the world held his attention and interest much more than did his photography of the rich or famous. It was not only that he had his own experiences of racism in the segregated Kansas, Chicago and Washington, D.C. of those times. He later said, “Those special problems spawned by poverty and crime touched me more, and I dug into them with more enthusiasm.”

His restless energy led him in new paths after he left Life magazine in 1968. He had written a memoir of the difficulties of a young black man. It was made into a film in 1969 called The Learning Tree, one of many with which Parks was associated. Parks later wrote about directing the film, “A lot of people of all colors were anxious about the breakthrough, and I was anxious to make the most of it. The wait had been far too long. Just remembering that no black had been given a chance to direct a motion picture in Hollywood since it was established kept me going.”

He also photographed a great deal of the turbulence of the civil rights years, continued his writing and his film-making. After King’s assassination, Life sent him to Atlanta. Parks wrote: “... Black people are demanding answers, and America must demonstrate the integrity of its conscience before we realize the worth of any answer. We have grown to doubt your promises, and the hopeful songs of our fathers....” Parks would later write the music for a 1989 ballet about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.

“When the doors of promise open, the trick is to quickly walk through them. Things inside me are still sprouting upward; still working overtime. Racism is still around, but I’m not about to let it destroy me....” Parks wrote those words to introduce a show of his photographs that traveled across the U.S. throughout 1997 and 1998. “These images and words are a gathering of individuals, events, places, conflicts and dilemmas that confronted me as I shifted from course to course in pursuit of survival. Some, star colored, others, painted with rage, fall like rain in my memory. They all simmer down to what I remember, forgot, and what at last I know.”

Parks said to a reporter interviewing him, “I supposed a lot of it depended on my determination not to let discrimination stop me.” It didn’t.