Gordon Parks was born on November 30, 1912, the youngest of fifteen brothers and sisters in a poor tenant farming family in rural Fort Scott, Kansas. It was, as Parks would say, technically Northern but functionally Southern given the institutionalised racism he encountered as a boy. He attended a segregated elementary school, was prohibited from playing sports, and was advised not to dream of attending college since higher education was pointless for people supposedly destined to be maids and porters. As a child he was beaten up for walking with a light-skinned cousin, was tossed into a river by three white boys who knew he couldn’t swim, and once spent Christmas riding a trolley all night to keep warm after being thrown out of the house in St. Paul, Minnesota where he was sent to live after his mother died when he was 14 years old.
As a young man he worked a series of odd jobs: He was a piano player in a brothel, a janitor in a flophouse, and a dining car waiter on a cross-country rail line. It was in the latter role that the seeds of his photography career were sewn. He would pour over the magazines travellers left behind and later wrote about Vogue — a magazine to which he became a regular contributor — in his 1990 autobiography, Voices in the Mirror: ‘Along with its fashion pages, I studied the names of its famous photographers — Steichen, Blumenfeld, Horst, Beaton, Hoyningen-Huené, thinking meanwhile that my own name could look quite natural among them.’
In pursuit of this goal Parks bought his first camera from a Seattle pawn shop in 1938 and taught himself how to use it. Within months, his images were being exhibited back in Minneapolis and he soon started scouting for work from local department stores. He was rebuffed by all except one in the form of Frank Murphy, the most fashionable boutique in the city. The shop boasted a running fountain, a resident parrot, and a clientele with extremely deep pockets. It was apparently Frank’s wife, Madeleine, who insisted her husband hire the young photographer despite his inexperience, for reasons never made clear. The bet eventually paid off handsomely for all parties, but not before Parks, with borrowed equipment and limited practice, accidentally double-exposed all but one of the initial photographs he took. Luckily, that one portrait proved good enough to win him a second chance.
Parks would go on to earn his keep as one of the most important photographers of the last century. He was the first Black photographer for the United States Office of War Information, the first Black photographer for Vogue, the first Black staff photographer at Life magazine, and even the first Black director to make a film for a major Hollywood studio with The Learning Tree in 1969. He was also a painter; a talented pianist and composer; and a prolific writer of fiction, journalism, essays, memoir, and poetry.
The camera, however, remained his ‘choice of weapon’, as he put it and he dedicated much of his working life to documenting the lives and struggles of Black Americans during the decades surrounding the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, the justifiable fame of Parks’ documentary efforts has largely dwarfed his concurrent career as a fashion photographer. Alex Leiberman, the editorial director of Conde Nast during Parks’ time at Vogue, had so much faith in the photographer that he used to instruct the editors to leave models Parks had dressed just as they were because he trusted his taste implicitly. Looking at Parks’ fashion shoots, it’s easy to see why.
His work as a photojournalist and fashion photographer proved symbiotic in nature. As the Gordon Parks Foundation points out:
‘As a working photographer, being able to supplement his documentary work with fashion photography so effectively made it so he would always be able to find work in times of uncertainty in job security. His background in both fashion and documentary photography would set him apart and prove to make him an asset at Life, making his acclaimed career at the magazine possible. Working with fashion helped to inform Parks’ overall style as a photographer. While he is today best known for his artful and intimate portraits of race relations, poverty, civil rights, and urban life, he is still heralded as a leading figure in mid-twentieth century fashion photography.’
His own clothing behind the lens proved every bit as remarkable as the outfits he shot. Always impeccably dressed, Parks’ wardrobe — rather like his professional life — spanned a wide spectrum. With the same versatility he brought to his creative work, Parks moved deftly between styles and occasions, wearing, say, western gear while on location directing a film, a trench coat while shooting out on the street, or some louche tailoring while in repose. He was one of those rare figures who looked equally good in black tie and in tennis whites.
Even in his all-encompassing rakishness, Parks had his favourites: the aforementioned trench coat, a navy double-breasted blazer, shearling jackets, roll-neck sweaters, button-down collars with a wide-open neck, silk scarves and ascots and pocket squares, an assortment of fine rings and bangles, and — his true accessory of choice — a pipe, which is shown to be at hand in photographs of the man nearly as often as was his camera. Add to this a walrus moustache and an enviable head of hair — both of which grew more snowy and striking with age — and you have a man whose appearance was arguably as arresting as the work he produced. As fellow photographer Carol Friedman described it, Parks’ natty and debonair image was simply an extension of his fine-tuned aesthetic.
It was Gordon Parks who told Muhammad Ali where to buy a suit because the rising sport star wanted to look like the photographer taking his photo. He was the man of whom Richard Roundtree, the star of Shaft (a seminal film from 1971 which Parks directed) said: ‘The character of John Shaft, if truth be known, was Gordon Parks.’ Once again, it was Parks who took Roundtree to his personal tailor to be outfitted for what has been hailed as some of the coolest costumes in cinema.
This week marks what would have been Parks’ 111th birthday (He passed away in 2006 at the age of 93). To this end I can only echo what Guy Trebay wrote last year when he spoke about why it seems more relevant than ever to celebrate the man in question: ‘[B]ecause, somehow, despite the long shadow cast by a man widely considered the pre-eminent Black American photographer of the 20th century, he is too little known, [and] the time seems right to revisit some elements of the remarkable life, style and undimmed relevance of Gordon Parks.’ Q.E.D and amen.
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