Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Photographer/Artist Gordon Parks bids farewell (1912-2006)

NEW YORK - Gordon Parks, who captured the struggles and triumphs of
black America as a photographer for Life magazine and then became
Hollywood's first major black director with "The Learning Tree" and
the hit "Shaft," died Tuesday, a family member said. He was 93.

Parks, who also wrote fiction and was an accomplished composer, died
in New York, his nephew, Charles Parks, said in a telephone
interview from Lawrence, Kan.

"Nothing came easy," Parks wrote in his autobiography. "I was just
born with a need to explore every tool shop of my mind, and with
long searching and hard work. I became devoted to my restlessness."

He covered everything from fashion to politics to sports during his
20 years at Life, from 1948 to 1968.

But as a photographer, he was perhaps best known for his gritty
photo essays on the grinding effects of poverty in the United States
and abroad and on the spirit of the civil rights movement.

"Those special problems spawned by poverty and crime touched me
more, and I dug into them with more enthusiasm," he said. "Working
at them again revealed the superiority of the camera to explore the
dilemmas they posed."

In 1961, his photographs in Life of a poor, ailing Brazilian boy
named Flavio da Silva brought donations that saved the boy and
purchased a new home for him and his family.

"The Learning Tree" was Parks' first film, in 1969. It was based on
his 1963 autobiographical novel of the same name, in which the young
hero grapples with fear and racism as well as first love and
schoolboy triumphs. Parks wrote the score as well directed.

In 1989, "The Learning Tree" was among the first 25 American movies
to be placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of
Congress. The registry is intended to highlight films of particular
cultural, historical or aesthetic importance.

The detective drama "Shaft," which came out in 1971 and starred
Richard Roundtree, was a major hit and spawned a series of black-
oriented films. Parks himself directed a sequel, "Shaft's Big
Score," in 1972.

He also published books of poetry and wrote musical compositions
including "Martin," a ballet about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Parks was born Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kan., the youngest of
15 children. In his 1990 autobiography, "Voices in the Mirror," he
remembered it as a world of racism and poverty, but also a world
where his parents gave their children love, discipline and religious

He went through a series of jobs as a teen and young man, including
piano player and railroad dining car waiter. The breakthrough came
when he was about 25, when he bought a used camera in a pawn shop
for $7.50. He became a freelance fashion photographer, went on to
Vogue magazine and then to Life in 1948.

"Reflecting now, I realize that, even within the limits of my
childhood vision, I was on a search for pride, meanwhile taking
measurable glimpses of how certain blacks, who were fed up with
racism, rebelled against it," he wrote.

When he accepted an award from Wichita State University in May 1991,
he said it was "another step forward in my making peace with Kansas
and Kansas making peace with me."

"I dream terrible dreams, terribly violent dreams," he said. "The
doctors say it's because I suppressed so much anger and hatred from
my youth. I bottled it up and used it constructively."

In his autobiography, he recalled that being Life's only black
photographer put him in a peculiar position when he set out to cover
the civil rights movement.

"Life magazine was eager to penetrate their ranks for stories, but
the black movement thought of Life as just another white
establishment out of tune with their cause," he wrote. He said his
aim was to become "an objective reporter, but one with a subjective

The story of young Flavio prompted Life readers to send in $30,000,
enabling his family to build a home, and Flavio received treatment
for his asthma in an American clinic. By the 1970s, he had a family
and a job as a security guard, but more recently the home built in
1961 has become overcrowded and run-down.

Still, Flavio stayed in touch with Parks off and on, and in 1997
Parks said, "If I saw him tomorrow in the same conditions, I would
do the whole thing over again."

In addition to novels, poetry and his autobiographical writings,
Parks' writing credits included nonfiction such as "Camera
Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture,"
1948, and a 1971 book of essays called "Born Black."

His other film credits included "The Super Cops," 1974; "Aaron Loves
Angela," 1975; and "Leadbelly," 1976.

Recalling the making of "The Learning Tree," he wrote: "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."

Last month, health concerns had kept Parks from accepting the
William Allen White Foundation National Citation in Kansas, but he
said in a taped presentation that he still considered the state his
home and wanted to be buried in Fort Scott.

Two years ago, Fort Scott Community College established the Gordon
Parks Center for Culture and Diversity.

Jill Warford, its executive director, said Tuesday that Parks "had a
very rough start in life and he overcame so much, but was such a
good person and kind person that he never let the bad things that
happened to him make him bitter."

Tues. Mar. 14th, 2006
490 Riverside Drive
New York, New York 10027

11:30am & 1:00 pm for Viewing.

Service at 2:00pm.


EpiphanyNoir said...

What a great photographer.... wonderful post.

ProfessorGQ said...

I wish I took the time to learn more about him before he passed away