From the Archives: Pioneering Photographer, Filmmaker Gordon Parks Dies

Times Staff Writer

Gordon Parks, who became the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine in the late 1940s and broke more ground in Hollywood two decades later as the first black person to direct a major studio film, “The Learning Tree,” followed by the landmark black private eye movie “Shaft,” has died. He was 93.

Parks, who also carved out niches as a novelist, memoirist, poet and composer, died Tuesday in New York, his nephew, Charles Parks, told The Times. Parks had been in failing health for some time, but the cause of death was not reported.

Although his films widened his fame, it was as a photographer and social documentarian that Parks first made his mark as an artist and achieved his greatest acclaim.


From a clapboard house in a segregated town in rural Kansas to a high-rise Manhattan apartment with a panoramic view of the East River, he covered a lot of ground on his way to becoming one of America’s foremost photojournalists.

Parks, who once played piano in a Minneapolis brothel and worked as a waiter on a railroad dining car, was a self-taught photographer. He was equally at ease documenting a chain gang in Alabama and photographing Manhattan socialite Gloria Vanderbilt or a Paris fashion model.

As a staff photographer at Life for more than two decades, Parks shot more than 300 major assignments, including acclaimed photo essays on segregation in the Deep South (1956), the slums of Rio de Janeiro (1961) and the Black Muslims (1963).

He also shot intimate portraits of celebrities, ranging from Muhammad Ali to Barbra Streisand. But poverty and powerlessness were frequent themes in his work.

His photo essay “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty” in a 1961 issue of Life examined the Da Silvas, an impoverished Rio de Janeiro couple whose young son, Flavio, was dying of bronchial asthma and malnutrition.

The public responded with donations and offers of adoption, and the Children’s Asthma Research Institute in Denver offered free treatment. Parks, who kept in touch with his young subject, wrote and directed a 1964 documentary on the boy as well as writing the award-winning 1978 biography “Flavio.”


In documenting the Black Power movement in the 1960s, Parks gained unprecedented access to the Black Muslims and the Black Panthers and produced memorable photo essays on both organizations.

“The black militants wanted their voices heard by a lot of people, and Life wanted to get their stories,” Parks told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 1993. “Life tried without me at first -- they sent white photographers, but they couldn’t get into the groups. So both of them realized that they had to trust me.”

After black rioting in the 1960s, Parks documented the poverty and racism that were at the root of the unrest with his 1968 Life photo-story on the Fontenelles, a poverty-stricken family living in a filthy, rat- and roach-infested brick tenement in Harlem.

Parks’ Life magazine assignments were not without risks. While covering the civil rights movement and other events in the South for the publication, he was twice threatened with lynching. And after he wrote a piece on the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X and the FBI learned of a plan to murder the photographer, Life sent Parks’ family abroad and put him under 24-hour armed guard at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

In 1997, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., launched the career-spanning show “Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks,” which toured museums across the country.

Tom Bamberger, adjunct curator of photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1998 that Parks was a significant figure in photography. “He epitomizes the worldview that all people, regardless of differences, have more in common than what separates them,” Bamberger said.

Parks had a second successful career as an author, beginning in the late 1940s with two instructional photography manuals. Among his other books are “Shannon,” a historical novel about Irish immigrants; “Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera”; “Born Black,” a collection of essays on personalities in the civil rights movement; and three memoirs -- “A Choice of Weapons,” “To Smile in Autumn” and “Voices in the Mirror.”

“The Learning Tree,” Parks’ semiautobiographical novel about a smart and sensitive 15-year-old boy who experiences racism, love and loss in a Kansas town in the 1920s, became a 1963 bestseller.

With support from actor-filmmaker John Cassavetes, whom Parks had photographed for Life and who wanted barriers against blacks in Hollywood eliminated, Parks was hired by Warner Bros.-Seven Arts Studio to write, direct, score and executive-produce the 1969 screen version of “The Learning Tree.”

In 1989, the movie was among the first 25 films honored by the U.S. Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry.

In 1971, Parks produced and directed his second film, “Shaft,” an action-thriller that gave America its first black hero, who became a role model for many young men. Starring Richard Roundtree as super-cool detective John Shaft and featuring Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme song, “Shaft” was a box-office hit that crossed racial lines. Although Parks insisted that it was “by no means an exploitation movie,” it helped launch the decade’s “blaxploitation” cycle of action-oriented films featuring African American heroes in gritty urban settings.

Parks made three more feature films: “Shaft’s Big Score” (1972), “The Super Cops” (1974) and “Leadbelly,” a 1976 biography of legendary folk singer Huddie Ledbetter. He later directed “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey,” a 1984 TV movie about a free black man who is sold into slavery.

Parks was often referred to as a renaissance man. In addition to his photography, film work and poetry, he composed a symphony, sonatas, concertos, film scores for “The Learning Tree” and “Shaft’s Big Score” and blues music. He received numerous honors over the years, including the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan.

A high school dropout, Parks often recalled a white high school teacher who advised black students not to waste their parents’ money on college, because they would end up as porters or maids anyway.

Parks later said that when he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Princeton -- one of dozens of honorary degrees he received -- he sincerely wished that his high school advisor had been there so he could hand it to her.

The youngest of 15 children born to an impoverished farmer and his devout Methodist wife, Parks was born Nov. 30, 1912, in the tiny prairie town of Fort Scott, Kan.

He attended a segregated elementary school and, although high school was integrated, black students were barred from social functions and from participating in sports. Parks later recalled being beaten up by whites when he was 12 for walking with a light-skinned cousin.

After his mother died when he was 15, Parks went to live with a married sister and her husband in St. Paul, Minn. But his brother-in-law resented Parks’ presence and after a few months, he found himself homeless.

Forced to fend for himself, he briefly found work playing piano in the brothel, quitting after a customer plunged a butcher knife through another customer’s neck close to Parks’ piano.

He then became a bellboy at an exclusive club in St. Paul before losing his job at the start of the Depression. He was working in a hotel in 1932 when a bandleader heard the self-taught Parks playing one of his compositions on the ballroom piano. The band performed the song on a network broadcast from the hotel, and Parks was asked to join the group on tour as a singer and piano player.

When the band broke up in New York City about a year later, Parks found himself stranded in Harlem. He joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and cleared forest land for a year before marrying Sally, the first of his three wives, and settling in Minneapolis.

His interest in photography was sparked in 1937 when he was working as a waiter on the North Coast Limited, a transcontinental train. A passenger had left behind a magazine featuring dramatic photos of dispossessed migrant workers taken by participants in the Farm Security Administration’s photography program. Launched in 1935, the program documented the effects of the Depression across the country and called attention to the plight of the needy.

The pictures, Parks later wrote in “Voices in the Mirror,” depicted “stark, tragic images of human beings caught up in the confusion of poverty” and would later influence his own work.

During a stopover in Seattle, he bought his first camera in a pawnshop for $7.50. In 1940, after three years of shooting pictures, he went to an upscale women’s clothing store in St. Paul and talked the white owner into letting him take fashion shots for the store.

Marva Louis, wife of boxing champion Joe Louis, later saw his fashion photos on display in the store window during a visit from Chicago. Louis was so impressed that she suggested Parks move to Chicago, where she could help him get fashion and society photo work.

After the move, Parks began documenting poverty on the city’s South Side in his spare time. Those pictures earned him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, which provided him with $200 a month for a year. The fellowship led him to Washington, D.C., in 1942 to work as a trainee under Roy Stryker, head of the photography unit at the Farm Security Administration, whose staff photographers included Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.

One of Parks’ most famous photos grew out of Stryker’s assignment to illustrate bigotry and discrimination in the nation’s capital. Parks found his subject, Ella Watson, a widowed black cleaning woman mopping floors in the agency’s offices.

His first photo of Watson, whom he followed for nearly a month, was an unsubtle attack on racism: He posed her standing in front of a large American flag, a broom in one hand, a mop in the other, and staring straight into the camera.

The photo, which Parks titled “American Gothic, 1942,” echoed Grant Wood’s famous 1931 painting of a stoic, pitchfork-holding white farmer and his wife in front of their farmhouse. When he showed the photo to Stryker, Parks later recalled, Stryker told him, “Well, you’ve got the idea. But you’re going to get us all fired.”

Parks shot all over America for the Farm Security Administration and, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994, “it was during those years that I learned the power the camera has.”

After the agency shut down in 1943, Parks became the first black photographer in the Office of War Information, where his assignments included documenting the training of the 332nd Fighter Group, the nation’s first squadron of African American pilots.

He went on to spend three years working with Stryker on the Standard Oil of New Jersey Photography Project to compile a photographic portrait of American small towns and industrial centers. To help support his family in New York City in the mid-1940s, Parks also began freelancing fashion photos for Glamour and Vogue magazines.

His 1948 freelance photo essay for Life on gang life in Harlem, in which he focused on 16-year-old gang leader Red Jackson, led to Parks’ being hired as a staff photographer on the nation’s most prestigious picture magazine.

Gordon Parks Jr., one of Parks’ four children, who directed “Superfly” and three other films, died in a 1979 plane crash.

Parks is survived by son David, daughters Toni and Leslie and several grandchildren.

Services are pending.


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