The name Gordon Parks may not instantly ring a bell to many people, but it is an important one in documenting the lives and struggles of African-American people as well as documenting, and contributing to, Black culture. Some may recognize it from the Shaft films in the 1970s as he directed both of those.
Others however, may recognize the name from a long and diverse body of work in photography that took in subjects such as civil rights, poverty, sports, fashion and Broadway and shot stars such as Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Barbara Streisand. Here, however, we take a look at some of his stunning work that captured the streets of Harlem, New York, in 1943.
Parks didn’t have the easiest start in life and was born into a farming family in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912. Going to a segregated school, Parks was not allowed play sports or attend special school events with the white children and was often bullied and subject to racist attacks during his time there. At 14, his mother died and he was sent to live with relatives, but by 15 he’d been thrown out onto the streets and he had to survive on his own.
Taking up various jobs in order to survive, Parks worked as a singer, bus boy, brothel worker and semi-pro basketball player but by the time he was 25, he was working as a waiter. It was around this time that he bought his very first camera and developed an interest in photography.
After seeing photos of migrant workers in a magazine, he felt he could show life on the streets in the same light and he soon started working as a professional photographer, mostly taking portraits. As a trainee at Farm Security Administration, he took his world famous, ‘American Gothic’ photo, shown below.
5 years after the shots of Harlem in this article were taken, Parks documented the life of a young gang leader in the area, a project that won him a job at Life magazine, where he would spend the next 20 years shooting real life situations, the world around him and celebrity portraits, becoming “one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States.”
In the 1950s, Parks worked as a consultant in Hollywood, working his way up to become the industry’s first major black director when he worked on The Learning Tree in 1969 and by 1971, he had made his most noted film, Shaft and the sequel a year later.
Parks passed away in 2006, after a battle with cancer, at the age of 93 but not before leaving an enduring legacy to America and the world with his film and photography work that predominantly revolved around documenting the lives and struggles of African-Americans. This work has been preserved by the Gordon Parks Foundation as well as a museum dedicated to him in the town where he was born, Fort Scott.