Gordon Parks was determined to overcome racism and poverty. The renowned photographer, writer, film producer, screenwriter, poet and composer, used life experiences and creative expression to expose social injustice.
Born on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks was the youngest of 14 children. In an excerpt from his autobiography, A Hungry Heart, he depicts the circumstances of his traumatic birth.
I was born dead. But a young white doctor plunged my blood-soaked remains into a tub of icy water and miraculously gave me life. With determination he had disallowed even death to defeat me. Years later, when told about the event by an older sister, I went to give him my thanks. But by then he was dead. My mother had expressed her gratitude to him by giving me his name. Dr. Gordon Baldwin was the savior whose color had nothing to do with his giving me, a black child, a right to life.
His namesake, G.R. “Gordon” Baldwin, MD, was the individual who first requested the Sisters of Mercy to open a hospital in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1886. Dr. Baldwin was also the first practicing physician at the hospital.
Parks’ mother died when he was only 15, and her final wish was for Gordon to be sent to live with his aunt in St. Paul, Minnesota. She knew that there, far away from the poverty and racial bigotry he had endured, he would find inspiration.
At the mere age of 16, in the brutal cold of a Minnesota winter, Parks learned to fend for himself, taking work where ever he could find it. He played piano in a brothel, mopped floors and washed store windows.
His foray into photography began when working as a waiter on a transcontinental train. A magazine left behind by a passenger was the inspiration. It contained a portfolio of pictures chronicling the horrible living conditions of migrant workers. The memory of those photographs refused to leave his mind, and he bought his first camera at a second-hand store for $12.50. In time, it became his weapon against racism, poverty and other things he loathed.
After receiving the first fellowship in photography from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation in 1941, Parks found work at the Farm Security Administration, a government agency established to call attention to the plight of the needy during the depression.
At the FSA, Gordon took his first professional photograph, “American Gothic.” The memorable image depicts a black woman standing before the American flag holding a mop and broom. It has become his signature image.
He would go on to cover the major happenings of each decade for Life magazine from the 1940s through the 1970s. His camera explored social injustice, poverty in America, Brazil and Portugal, crime, violence, civil rights and segregation throughout America.
Even though racial issues are threaded through his work, Gordon believed the camera was not meant to just show misery, but beauty as well. With his expanding talent, Gordon became a fashion photographer for Vogue magazine for several years.
Other avenues for his talents opened including filmmaking, writing, music and poetry. Perhaps not widely recognized but hidden among the great works of Parks is a ballet written to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.
The first African-American film producer for a major studio, he wrote his biographical novel, The Learning Tree, penned the screenplay, then composed the musical score. That, his first full-length film, was shot in Fort Scott, and is based on his childhood there. More films were to follow including Shaft, Super Cops, Leadbelly and three others. Also to his credit is a piano concerto, a symphony for orchestra and 23 books. In his lifetime, he received 50 honorary doctorate degrees and hundreds of other honors including Photographer of the Year, American Society of Magazine Photographers and Kansan of the Year.
Parks died on March 7, 2006 in New York, NY. As a donation to the Mercy Health Foundation, Mercy Hospital Fort Scott is proud home to the nation’s largest private collection of Parks’ works, featuring 51 photographs and numerous poems.