Photo: Kingkongphoto & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
Born: November 30, 1912
Born Place: Fort Scott, Kansas, United States
Died: March 7, 2006
Death Place: New York, New York, United States
On view: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, High Museum of Art, etc.
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks (November 30, 1912 – March 7, 2006) was an American photographer, musician, writer and film director, who became prominent in U.S. documentary photojournalism in the 1940s through 1970s—particularly in issues of civil rights, poverty and African-Americans—and in glamour photography.
As the first famous pioneer among black filmmakers, he was the first African American to produce and direct major motion pictures—developing films relating the experience of slaves and struggling black Americans, and creating the “blaxploitation” genre. He is best remembered for his iconic photos of poor Americans during the 1940s (taken for a federal government project), for his photographic essays for Life magazine, and as the director of the 1971 film Shaft. Parks also was an author, poet and composer.
Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, the son of Andrew Jackson Parks and Sarah Ross, on November 30, 1912. He was the youngest of fifteen children. His father was a farmer who grew corn, beets, turnips, potatoes, collard greens, and tomatoes. They also had a few ducks, chickens, and hogs.
He attended a segregated elementary school. The town was too small to afford a separate high school that would facilitate segregation of the secondary school, but black people were not allowed to play sports or attend school social activities, and they were discouraged from developing any aspirations for higher education. Parks related in a documentary on his life that his teacher told him that his desire to go to college would be a waste of money.
When Parks was eleven years old, three white boys threw him into the Marmaton River, knowing he couldn’t swim. He had the presence of mind to duck underwater so they wouldn’t see him make it to land. His mother died when he was fourteen. He spent his last night at the family home sleeping beside his mother’s coffin, seeking not only solace, but a way to face his own fear of death.
Soon after, he was sent to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with a sister and her husband. He and his brother-in-law argued frequently and Parks was finally turned out onto the street to fend for himself at age 15. Struggling to survive, he worked in brothels, and as a singer, piano player, bus boy, traveling waiter, and semi-pro basketball player. In 1929, he briefly worked in a gentlemen’s club, the Minnesota Club. There he not only observed the trappings of success, but was able to read many books from the club library. When the Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought an end to the club, he jumped a train to Chicago, where he managed to land a job in a flophouse.
Parks was married and divorced three times. He married Sally Alvis in Minneapolis during 1933 and they divorced in 1961. In 1962, he married Elizabeth Campbell, daughter of cartoonist E. Simms Campbell, and they divorced in 1973. Parks first met Chinese-American editor Genevieve Young (stepdaughter of Chinese diplomat Wellington Koo) in 1962 when he began writing The Learning Tree. At that time, his publisher assigned her to be his editor. They became romantically involved at a time when they both were divorcing previous spouses, and married in 1973. They divorced in 1979. Candace Bushnell claims to have dated Parks in 1976, when she was 18 and he was 58. For many years, Parks was romantically involved with Gloria Vanderbilt, the railroad heiress and designer. Their relationship evolved into a deep friendship that endured throughout his lifetime.
Parks had four children: Gordon, Jr., David, Leslie, and Toni (Parks-Parsons). His oldest son Gordon Parks, Jr., whose talents resembled his father’s, was killed in a plane crash in 1979 in Kenya, where he had gone to direct a film. Parks has five grandchildren: Alain, Gordon III, Sarah, Campbell, and Satchel. Malcolm X honored Parks when he asked him to be the godfather of his daughter, Qubilah Shabazz.
He died of cancer at the age of 93 while living in Manhattan, New York City, and is buried in his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas.
With his film Shaft (along with Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, released earlier the same year), Parks has credited with co-creating the genre of blaxploitation, an ethnic subgenre of the exploitation film that emerged in the United States during the early 1970s. The action film also helped to alter Hollywood’s view of African Americans, introducing the black action hero into mainstream cinema.
Director Spike Lee cites Parks as an inspiration, stating “You get inspiration where it comes from. It doesn’t have to be because I’m looking at his films. The odds that he got these films made under when there were no black directors, is enough.”
Parks is referenced in Kendrick Lamar’s music video, for his song, “ELEMENT.”. In the music video, some of Parks’ iconic photographs are transformed into moving vignettes.