Gordon Parks (b. 1912, Fort Scott, KS, d. 2006, New York, NY) was one of the seminal figures of twentieth century photography. A humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice, he left behind a body of work that documents many of the most important aspects of American culture from the early 1940s up until his death in 2006, with a focus on race relations, poverty, civil rights, and urban life. In addition, Parks was also a celebrated composer, author and filmmaker who interacted with many of the most prominent people of his era- from politicians and artists to celebrities and athletes.
Parks was born into poverty in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912, the youngest of fifteen children. He worked several odd jobs until he bought a camera at a Pawn Shop in 1937 in Seattle and was hired to photograph fashion at a department store in Minneapolis. In 1942 Parks received a photography fellowship from the Farm Security Administration, succeeding Dorothea Lange among others. While at the F.S.A., Parks created American Gothic, now known as one of his signature images, in which he shows Ella Watson, a cleaning women, holding a mop and broom, standing in front of an American flag. The image makes a poignant commentary on social injustice whilst referencing Grant Wood’s celebrated painting American Gothic which it is also named after. He became a freelance photographer working for Vogue as well as publishing two books, Flash Photography (1947) and Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture (1948). In 1948 Parks was hired by Life magazine to do a photographic essay on Harlem gang leader, Red Jackson, which led to a permanent position at Life, where he worked for twenty years. Parks developed his skills as a composer and author and in 1969 he became the first African American to direct a major motion picture, The Learning Tree, based on his best-selling novel and in 1971 he directed Shaft. A true Renaissance man, Gordon Parks passed away in 2006.