A Choice of Weapons

by Gordon Parks Sr.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Gordon Parks Sr. became one of the most important photographers in the United States. At a time when few African Americans were well-known in the field, Parks made a name for himself not only in fashion but also in documentary photography. A Choice of Weapons chronicles a significant phase of his life: his late teens through early thirties, which coincided with the latter part of the Great Depression and with World War Two. In those years, he discovered his love and affinity for camera work. One particularly meaningful period came when he connected with New Deal programs. From a Works Project Administration art program in Chicago, he earned a fellowship that connected him with the Farm Security Administration in Washington. Parks’s contributions include now-iconic photographs of major African American figures such as Richard Wright.

Parks writes of his family’s poverty and instability, including the frequent necessity to fend for himself after his mother’s death. His creative spirit, often expressed through music, rarely generated the income needed to survive. The first New Deal project he joined was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which gave him enough financial stability to get married.

Parks notes a major turning point when he discovered the power of photography from the works produced by FSA projects. He recalls being stunned by the power of the documentary work of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, among others. Parks narrates his process of self-education, as he took every opportunity both to see photographs and to practice his craft, constantly visiting museums and shooting everywhere he went. Initially hired to do fashion shoots, he took the plunge and entered the WPA program in a Chicago art center. From that point on, he reveals, photography took over his life. He was fortunate to find a mentor in Ross Stryker at the FSA, which allowed him to grow exponentially in both the artistic and technical sides of photography. Within a broad range of subject matter, Parks was especially dedicated to documenting African American life as few had done before him.

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