Social critic was armed with lens
By Michael Wilmington, Tribune movie critic. Tribune staff reporter Mark Jacob and Tribune news services contributed to this report
March 8, 2006
"I chose my camera as a weapon against all the things I dislike about America--poverty, racism, discrimination."
So said Gordon Parks in his searingly powerful 1966 autobiography "A Choice of Weapons," a bold statement that aptly revealed two sides of this complex, brilliant and ultimately heroic artist: the outward anger against injustice and the love that lay beneath it. Both helped fuel his rise from Kansas rural poverty to world fame.
Parks, who died Tuesday in his New York City home at the age of 93, was a true Renaissance man who had an astonishing array of gifts and talents. He excelled in many areas and lived an improbably full, inspiring and productive life.
He was a subtle and luminous photographer and poet and was director of the action-packed 1971 hit movie "Shaft."
Above all, he was a photographer, one of the legends of his profession. He was the first African-American staff photographer for Life magazine, and later became the first black to direct a major Hollywood movie.
Parks' perfect eye and sensitivity to light and dark revealed themselves in many other fields as well. He was a novelist, poet, journalist, composer of both film scores and classical music (including the 1989 ballet "Martin," about Martin Luther King Jr.) and even, for a while, a semi-pro basketball player.
All his great gifts however, especially his genius for photography and writing, came together in his work in film.
There were other black moviemakers before Parks, notably silent film pioneer Oscar Micheaux, but none that matched his impact in the '60s and '70s. Though Parks directed only five features, two shorts and one television movie, it's not stretching to grant him the place among his fellow African-American filmmakers that is held among whites by John Ford. In films like "The Learning Tree" and "Leadbelly," Parks, like Ford, was a cinematic lyricist and critic of America.
Parks' debut feature, "The Learning Tree" (1969), was adapted from his autobiographical 1963 novel. He wrote the screenplay, composed the score, and directed and produced the film, creating a masterpiece of American cinema. Ignored by too many critics and historians, despite being one of the first 25 films chosen for preservation by America's National Film Registry, it portrays the bigoted world of Parks' youth through the harsh experiences of young alter-ego Newt, played by Kyle Johnson.
Parks' most famous and lucrative movie, a definitive contribution to American pop culture, was "Shaft," that hip, modern, private-eye thriller starring natty Richard Roundtree as the irreverent New York shamus who verbally trashed both crooks and cops, strutting to the pulsing beat of Isaac Hayes' title song. "Shaft" is still watched on DVD and at revivals today. But though it gave Parks brief clout as a movie director in the `70s blaxploitation era before that trend died out, "Shaft" now seems less representative of his gifts than "The Learning Tree."
Parks was born Nov. 30, 1912, in Ft. Scott, Kan., the youngest of 15 children. As a young man, he worked as a piano player in a brothel and as a waiter in a railroad dining car. In his mid-20s, he bought a camera in a pawn shop for $7.50 and eventually became a freelance fashion photographer before training his lens on more serious subjects.
Perhaps his most famous portrait occurred early in his career when he was working for the Farm Security Administration. "American Gothic" in 1942 depicts cleaning lady Ella Watson posed before the American flag holding a mop and broom; it is a bitter parody of Grant Wood's famed painting "American Gothic."
In the 1940s, Parks was part of the Chicago Renaissance that also included such African-American luminaries as dancer Katherine Dunham, writer Richard Wright, musician Nat King Cole and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Parks printed his photographs in a darkroom in the basement of the South Side Community Art Center, 3831 S. Michigan Ave.
Parks also worked for Vogue magazine. In 1948, he joined Life. In the next two decades he made a strong social impact with his gritty photo essays on poverty and his depictions of the energy 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."
His documentation of the underprivileged extended beyond America's borders. In 1961, Life published his photos of a poor Brazilian boy, Flavio da Silva, who was dying of bronchial asthma and malnutrition. Readers responded with donations that saved the boy's life.
Parks later made an acclaimed 1964 short film, "Flavio," based on the story.
Parks' photography was as varied as his life. Along with rough-edged black-and-white urban photojournalism, he produced lush and colorful fashion images and classy portraits of celebrities. In his later years, he used computer technology to create heavily manipulated photo fantasies.
Parks' photography career was featured in "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks," an exhibit by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington that was featured in 2004 at the Chicago Historical Society.
Parks, who was given a National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan, also helped found Essence magazine for black women in the early 1970s.
His three marriages--to Sally Alvis, Elizabeth Campbell and Genevieve Young--ended in divorce. A son from his first marriage, Gordon Parks Jr., who directed 1972's "Superfly" and other movies, died in a 1979 plane crash while scouting locations in Kenya. Parks is survived by his daughter Toni Parks Parson and his son, David, also from his first marriage, and a daughter, Leslie Parks Harding, from his second marriage. He also had five grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
Parks was widely admired by later generations of photographers and made friends with many of them, including some Chicagoans.
"He was a sharing type of person," Tribune photographer Milbert O. Brown recalled. "He was fundamentally a great person. When you think of Gordon Parks as a well-known superstar photographer, writer and director, you would think he was unapproachable. But he was very approachable."
John H. White, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Chicago Sun-Times, also recalled Parks' giving nature.
"It was never about Gordon. It was about others. And I think that's the reason that people connected with him," White said. "He would get embarrassed when people would call him `The Renaissance Man.' He would say, `I don't even know how to spell it, but if that's what you think, I'm honored.'"
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A versatile life
Some highlights of Gordon Parks' career:
Life magazine, 1948-68
"Flavio," 1964 (short documentary)
"The Learning Tree," 1969
"Shaft's Big Score," 1972
"The Super Cops," 1974
"Solomon Northup's Odyssey," 1984 (TV film)
"The Learning Tree," 1963
"A Choice of Weapons," 1966
"Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera" (1969)
"Voices in the Mirror," 1990
"Half Past Autumn," 1997
"A Star for Noon," 2000
"A Hungry Heart: A Memoir," 2005
"Eyes With Winged Thoughts," 2005