To call Gordon Parks (1912–2006) a Renaissance man would be a massive understatement.
A photographer, filmmaker, writer, musician/composer, and painter, Parks enjoyed an extraordinary career that landed him everywhere from Hollywood to the front lines in the battle for Civil Rights.
Parks was a freelancer for Glamour and Ebony before becoming the first Black staff photographer at Life magazine, in 1948; later, he shot fashion spreads for Vogue. He was also the first African American to helm a major motion picture—1969’s semi-autobiographical The Learning Tree, which Parks adapted from his own novel of the same name, and for which he co-composed the musical score. His next directorial effort, the 1971 thriller Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree as the eponymous detective, was such a huge hit that it spawned the box-office genre known as “blaxploitation” while also producing an equally famous theme song by Isaac Hayes.
Still, out of all his accomplishments, Parks probably remains best known for producing some of the most powerful photographs of the 20th century. His interest in photography began early. Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, as a teenager, where, after buying his first camera and teaching himself the craft, he landed his first professional job shooting fashion for a department store.
In 1940 he moved to the South Side of Chicago, where he had a portrait studio at the South Side Community Art Center. Two years later, he went to work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which had begun chronicling the nation’s social conditions under the New Deal. Upon arriving in Washington, D.C., he described the city as “bulging” with racism. One of the images taken in response was of a cleaning lady in the FSA building, her pose taken from Grant Wood’s iconic painting, American Gothic.
Parks became particularly noted for capturing subjects from the sports, politics, and entertainment worlds, as well as from everyday life, while on assignment. But more important, he dedicated himself to social justice, noting that he considered the camera “a weapon against poverty [and] racism.”
Recently Howard University acquired a collection of 252 photographs from the Gordon Parks Foundation that cover the entire arc of his career. It focuses on the portraits for which he is rightly celebrated, as you’ll see from the indelible examples below.
Charles White, Chicago, Illinois, 1941
In the 1930s, a group of African American artists spearheaded by Dr. Margaret Taylor-Burroughs (1915–2010) founded the South Side Community Art Center (SSAIC) in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. SAIC was crucial to promoting Black artists over the decades of their exclusion from the white art world.
It was at SSAIC that Parks produced this portrait of the artist Charles White (1918–1979), a co-founder of the center, whose own career was revived by a 2018 retrospective organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Parks also captured other members of the SSAIC community, including Taylor-Burroughs.
Paul Robeson, Baritone, Washington, D.C., 1942
A portfolio of images shot in Chicago by Parks won him a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, founded in 1917 to support the work of African American artists and scholars. The money afforded him the opportunity to move to Washington, D.C., and work for the FSA.
This photo of actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson was taken for 13 Against the Odds, a compendium of biographies of outstanding African Americans that the fund published in 1944. Robeson was known for numerous landmark performances, such as his roles in the stage musical Showboat (1928) and the film The Emperor Jones (1933), the first movie with an African American as its star.
Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1952
More than just a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, Harlem at midcentury was the capital of African American culture, a place Parks visited repeatedly. His very first assignment for Life, for example, was a profile of the leader of a Harlem gang called the Midtowners during a vicious turf war in 1948. Five years earlier, though, he’d traveled to Harlem for his work on 13 Against the Odds.
In 1952 Parks used Harlem as the backdrop for a series of photographs evoking passages from Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, which had been published that year. These images were notable for being shot from pavement level, mimicking the protagonist’s view of the world from his basement abode.
Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956
A year after the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama—a foundational event in the Civil Rights movement—Life assigned Parks to travel south to capture life under segregation, which had been codified under the separate but equal doctrine emerging from the 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson.
Black people were relegated to using “colored only” facilities designated by signs slapped on everything from water fountains to order windows at the local ice cream stand. Employing color film, Parks documented these daily humiliations to devastating effect, though he also captured scenes of African Americans carrying on with their lives, as in this image of an outdoor gathering.
Untitled, Chicago, 1957
Parks had previously covered crime for Life with his series on Harlem gangs, but in 1957 the same publication sent him to four cities—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—to depict the “atmosphere of crime” at a time when it was skyrocketing. Parks followed police and visited prisons, and he could certainly see that African Americans were being disproportionally caught up in the violence.
Though terms like institutional racism and mass incarceration weren’t yet in use, he managed to evoke both in this image of an inmate’s hand dangling out between the bars of his cell.
Untitled, New York, 1957
In the 1950s, Abstract Expressionism dominated American art. In 1949 Life had published “Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” which boosted the artist to widespread fame.
Eight years later, the same editor who had handled that piece assigned Parks to one on female Abstract Expressionists. “Women Artists in Ascendance” featured five artists under 35. Parks depicted them in their studios surrounded by their work, in contrast to the article on Pollock, which had been illustrated by reproductions of his paintings. This photo of painter Helen Frankenthaler is a striking example of Parks’s images for the story.
Sidney Poitier in “A Raisin in the Sun,” New York, 1959
Increasingly, Life sent Parks to cover cultural stories, which, like the Ab Ex assignment, weren’t always related to the Black experience. But the magazine’s 1959 article “Negro Talent in a Prize Play,” for which Parks took photos, did chronicle a landmark of racial progress: the opening of A Raisin in the Sun, the first Broadway play to be written and directed by African Americans.
A tale about a Black working-class family in Chicago, it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the year, thanks to the powerful performance, captured by Parks, of its star, Sidney Poitier.
Duke Ellington in Concert, New York, 1960
Shortly after his mother died when he was 16, Parks moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with his older sister and her husband. Within a year, their incessant arguing drove him out of the house and to the streets, where he haunted nightclubs and played piano in flophouses.
In 1929 at age 17, Parks met Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, the legendary jazz musician, composer, and innovator of the big-band sound. Decades later, in 1960, their careers intersected when Parks went on tour with Ellington to document him in performances and recording sessions. This image captures the maestro leading his orchestra in New York City.
Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1963
This image of Malcolm X giving a fiery speech was taken around the time Parks approached the revolutionary civil rights icon about doing a piece on the Black Muslims for Life. The editors had already contacted the Nation of Islam, as the group was known formally, about doing a story, but were rebuffed for suggesting a white reporter for it. Parks, Life’s only black staffer, was then given the assignment.
The article appeared under his byline in the May 31, 1963, issue. Parks went on to photograph Malcolm X repeatedly and is credited with humanizing a controversial figure who was often vilified in the white press.
Untitled, Washington, D.C., 1963
In 1963, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to demand civil rights and economic opportunities for African Americans. An estimated gathering of 250,000 people, some 75–80% Black, massed on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial; there, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech, which helped to force the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Gordon Parks was present, and among the iconic images he took of the event is this one of a man with the crowd a blur behind him.
Boy with June Bug, Fort Scott, Kansas, 1963
In 1963 Parks published his first novel, The Learning Tree. Based on his own upbringing in Kansas, it relates the tale of a Black teenager growing up on a farm during the 1920s, which Parks would later adapt for his directorial debut.
To celebrate the book’s publication, Life ran a story titled “How It Feels to Be Black,” a portfolio of color photos Parks took in his hometown. Accompanied by Parks’s essay, “The Long Search for Pride,” the featured images illustrated passages from the novel, including this one of a boy with a June bug tethered by a string, suggestive of the restrictions on Black Americans.
Stokely Carmichael in SNCC Office, Atlanta, 1967
Although Dr. King espoused nonviolent protest, a new generation taking a dimmer view of the strategy emerged during the mid-1960s. The most vocal of them was Stokely Carmichael, who headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Impatient with Dr. King’s methods, Carmichael called for a more militant approach to civil rights, which he labeled Black Power. This immediately made him a target for the white media.
In 1967 Parks followed Carmichael on the road, taking pictures of the charismatic activist as he delivered speeches, spoke with supporters, and led voter registration drives. This picture shows Carmichael in an atypically quiet moment.
Bessie Fontenelle and Richard Climb the Stairs, Harlem, New York, 1967
In 1967 Life sent three reporters to investigate the travails of the inner-city ghettoes, one of whom was Parks. The others were white, and while they canvased entire neighborhoods for the story, Parks focused on the hardships of a single family, the Fontenelles, at the onset of winter. Nine children and their parents were crammed into a tiny Harlem apartment without heat, hot water, or enough food. One image shows them on Thanksgiving, huddled around the kitchen stove for warmth. Due to hunger, the youngest, three-year-old Richard, would sometimes eat fallen plaster; here, he’s being carried up the building’s stairs by his mother.
Fashion photography is probably the least-known aspect of Parks’s work, but it was a crucial one, dating back to the beginning of his career. In addition to assignments as a photojournalist, he shot fashion spreads for both Life and Vogue, where he had been hired by the fashion bible’s art director, Alexander Liberman.
In his 1990 autobiography, Parks wrote that he learned fashion photography by studying the greats in the field, such as Edward Steichen, Horst, and Cecil Beaton. This image of supermodel Iman was taken as part of an ad campaign for Revlon’s “Polished Ambers,” an upscale line of cosmetics marketed to women of color.
Late in his career, Parks had, for all intents and purposes, become a celebrity who photographed other celebrities, as in this portrait of a young Spike Lee. Parks’s own work as a filmmaker inspired an entire generation of African American directors making independent films in the 1980s, and ’90s, such as John Singleton and Lee—both of whom would soon graduate to Hollywood fame.
Here Parks captures Lee wearing one of his signature baseball caps, this one embroidered with the logo for his hit 1990 movie, ’Mo Better Blues, an early star vehicle for future two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington.