Gordon Parks

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Gordon Parks, Sr., developed a successful career as a photographer before writing nonfiction, poetry, fiction, and music. Born on a farm in Kansas, the youngest of Sarah and Andrew Parks’s fifteen children, Parks spent the first sixteen years of his life in the close-knit safety of a loving family. When his mother died, however, he was sent to St. Paul, Minnesota, where his circumstances changed drastically. After briefly living with a sister and her husband, he dropped out of high school and became independent, working at a variety of jobs from playing piano in a brothel to playing semiprofessional basketball.

In 1933, at the age of twenty-one, Parks joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and married Sally Alvis. When his time with the CCC ended, he became a railroad pullman porter. It was during this time that he bought his first camera and began to learn the skills of photography. A series of photographs with which he chronicled ghetto life in Chicago won him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1941. He moved to Washington, D.C., to work at the Farm Security Administration in 1942, and, after devoting himself for a time to the reading he had missed when his formal education was interrupted, he became a correspondent for the Office of War Information.

His first book, Flash Photography, had a long gestation period during which he repeatedly reworded the book. The experience nearly convinced him that he was not a writer, but he did continue to write short pieces. After one piece was published in Life magazine, he became a staff photographer there from 1948 to 1972. His many exceptional contributions to Life include photojournalistic pieces on crime, gangs, black activist organizations and their members, and civil rights.

In 1963, he saw the publication of his first work of fiction, The Learning Tree, a story about a black family during the 1920’s. The novel recounts the experiences of Newt Winger, an adolescent at the point of becoming aware of girls and sex and the inequities of life in the small segregated Kansas town where he and his family live. Parks includes descriptions of brutality, violence, natural disasters (a tornado), and bigotry at its worst. Yet the story is also an uplifting tale of the strength of a black family and the fortitude and determination of an individual black male who must struggle against many forces. The novel was adapted into a screenplay by Parks himself; he also produced and directed the film version and wrote the musical score.

Parks received a Notable Book Award from the American Library Association for A Choice of Weapons in 1966, an autobiographical work that covers Parks’s life from the age of sixteen to 1944, when he went to New York. Although the work contains references to events Parks had also described in The Learning Tree, the writing is less embellished than in the earlier book.

Parks continued to work as a photographer through the 1960’s and 1970’s, and he published collections of his photographs and poems in Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera, Whispers of Intimate Things, and Moments Without Proper Names. He also composed concertos (one of which he used as background music to a New York photographic exhibit), a symphony, sonatas, and film scores. Between 1971 and 1973, Parks directed three commercially successful films: Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score, and The Super Cops.

By 1979, he had fathered four children, married three times, and written another volume of autobiography. To Smile in Autumn picks up his life in 1944 and ends in 1978,...

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when Parks believed he had accomplished what he had set out to do. In 1981, he wroteShannon, a novel about a white family, the O’Farrells, that is set in the early 1900’s. The story of one man’s rise to wealth and prominence, the work includes romance, social and psychological issues, and several black characters whose lives are woven into the story and add an element of racial turbulence to the plot. The book was not as commercially or critically successful as The Learning Tree, but it was acclaimed for its realistic portrayal of the period in America between 1890 and the end of World War I.

Parks stayed very active in his later years, publishing further collections his photographs and poems called Arias in Silence, Glimpses Toward Infinity, and A Star for Noon. He published the autobiography Voices in the Mirror in 1990, and Half Past Autumn was his companion volume to a traveling retrospective about his remarkable life. Sun Stalker, his historical novel about nineteenth century English painter J. M. W. Turner, appeared in 2003, when Parks was ninety years old. Parks died on March 7, 2006 in New York City.

Parks was given many awards and honorary degrees for his exceptional work as a photographer and for his writing and music, including the National Medal of Art, presented to him by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. His lasting claim to fame, however, will most likely be The Learning Tree.


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