TSY STYLE HALL OF FAME | ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHER GORDON PARKS

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“I had a great sense of curiosity and a great sense of just wanting to achieve.

I just forgot I was black and walked in and asked for a job

and tried to be prepared for what I was asking for.”

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–Gordon Parks

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Gordon Parks (1912-2006)  — The iconic photographer, artist, director, writer, activist, and musician.

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From the desk of Contributing Editor, Eli M. Getson–

During his 93 years, Gordon Parks led an extraordinary life, and bore witness to some of the most amazing events of the 20th century– often chronicling them through the lens of his camera.  Most of us who lived in the 1970s know him as the director of Shaft, the groundbreaking film that featured a black leading man whupping ass, bedding beautiful women– and all without as much as ruffling the collar of his trademark black leather trench coat.

However, Gordon Parks was much more than  Shaft. During his lifetime he was a friend to famous artists, musicians, athletes, politicians, fashion models, actors, and general movers and shakers– he seemed to know everyone who was making history in one way, shape, or form.  Parks also made his mark in photography, literature, film, music, and social activism.  I can also say from experience he was one of the most stylish and charming New Yorkers I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

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Gordon Parks filming “The Learning Tree”, Fort Scott, KS, 1968. — Photograph by Norman E. Tanis.

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Parks began his career at 25 when he was struck by a photograph of migrant workers.  He purchased a camera for $12.50, and soon after a truly epic career ensued.  He moved from Kansas to St. Paul to become the staff photographer for a department store.  From there a chance meeting with the wife of heavyweight champ Joe Louis brought Parks to the South Side of Chicago where he began a well respected portrait business for society ladies and a fashion photography business on the side.  Naturally intellectually curious and artistic– he began to chronicle life in the South Side and a 1941 exhibit of this work won him a fellowship with the Farm Security Administration.  During this time Parks photographed a janitor, Ella Watson, in front of the American Flag holding a mop in one hand and a broom in the other.  The photo, American Gothic (inspired by the Grant Wood painting of the same name), remains one of his most well know works.

Parks left Washington in 1944 and moved to Harlem where he became a freelance photographer for Vogue. The fact that in postwar America a black man could be one of the key image makers in the notoriously all white world of high fashion is extraordinary, but this was a mere way stop on what would be an incredible career that would span the next five decades. His later photography for LIFE Magazine (their first black photographer) would cover virtually everything– sporting events, migrant workers, coal miners in Appalachia, gang members in Harlem, Broadway and Hollywood starts– and push the bounds at LIFE by gaining intimate access to black leaders and influencers like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Stokley Carmichael.  From there he would move on to writing and directing films, becoming accomplished in poetry and literature, and one of the most well known and well connected New Yorkers who would socialize with everyone from Nelson Rockefeller to gangster Frank Lucas (the Joe Morton character in American Gangster is rumored to be based on Parks).  From humble beginnings he forged a truly unique American life– he’s a true inspiration as an artist, and a human being.

Eli  M. Getson

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Gordon Parks — Photograph by Norman Eagle

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Gordon Parks, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photographer, c. 1943

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1958– LIFE photographer Gordon Parks standing with one of his photographs.  — Photo by Nina Leen

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Gordon Parks LIFE Staff — Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt

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Gordon Parks — Photograph by Paul Waldman

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Gordon Parks (rt.) photograph by Christopher Felver

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Gordon Parks — Photograph by Johanna Fiore

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Gordon Parks — Image © Kojo Kamau

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American Gothic — “I had experienced a kind of bigotry and discrimination here that I never expected to experience… At first, I asked her about her life, what it was like, and so disastrous that I felt that I must photograph this woman in a way that would make me feel or make the public feel about what Washington, D.C. was in 1942. So I put her before the American flag with a broom in one hand and a mop in another. And I said, “American Gothic”–that’s how I felt at the moment. I didn’t care about what anybody else felt. That’s what I felt about America and Ella Watson’s position inside America.”  — Photographer Gordon Parks

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Browse Gordon Parks’ incredible LIFE photographs here

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5 thoughts on “TSY STYLE HALL OF FAME | ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHER GORDON PARKS

  1. This is simply brilliant. The arrangement of photos, and how you showed his age progression is chilling. Incredible documentary.

    Thanks!

  2. One of my true heroes. Such a varied and interesting career. Excellent at so many things. Guys like that don’t happen often. That he did it at a time when people his color had doors slammed in their faces routinely is all the more remarkable.

  3. My favorite story about Gordon Parks was one I saw him tell when during a documentary about depression ers photography PBS did. He was talking about when he showed up for his first day of work under Roy Stryker. Stryker told him upon coming in that his first assignment was to go downstairs and get lunch and then go acros the street and see a movie. This being the 1930’s he was promptly turned away for being black and returned to the office. When he walked in minutes later Stryker asked him how things went. Parks told him, “I think you know how it went.” Stryker said “Yeah, so what are you gonna do about it?” Parks told him he didn’t know what to do about it and Stryker said “then why’d you bring that camera down here?”

    Parks knew that you can’t just take a picture of a bigot and write “bigot” on it. You put it infront of people so they can figure it out on their own. “American Gothic” is the perfect example of how to powerfully express subjugation.

    • Gordon Parks was the commencment speaker for my graduating class at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1979. To say that the speech itself was nothing less than awe-inspiring would be a gross understatement. By and large diplomas are nothing more than a piece of paper that doesn’t mean a helluva lot in the long run. But to have Mr. Park’s signature next to my name was truly a badge of honor. It made four long years seem very, very short compared to what this guy accomplished.

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