The photographic work of Gordon Parks, along with that of other famous American photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange or Bruce Davidson, is considered to be a vital contribution to a socially critical documentation of US history. Yet Parks, born the 15th child to a family of black farmers in rural Kansas in 1912, faced the worst conceivable conditions for a successful career, because back in those days of racial segregation, a black person was not predestined to become a photographer. Far too often, Parks and his black classmates were told by their white teachers that their only purpose in life was to be useful to society as "maids and porters". In his first autobiography, Parks recalls his mother's inspiring and challenging words: "What a white boy can do, you can too – and no excuses." Perhaps it was this early influence that gave Parks the self-confidence and tenacity he needed – also as a strong foundation for his many talents – to make a name for himself later on as an author of novels, reports, poems and music and ultimately as a successful Hollywood producer.
As the first black photographer with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington D.C. in the 1940s, he increasingly focused his attention on groups and individuals who were disadvantaged or forgotten by society. Later on, during his time as staff photographer for the editorial board of LIFE, the leading photographic magazine of the day, he published numerous socially critical reports and photo essays. His friendship with charismatic Afro-Americans like Muhammad Ali or Malcom X inspired him to produce photo stories and articles about the American civil rights movement, which bear testimony to the successful revolt of the black minority in the USA.
As well as mastering high-contrast black-and-white photography, from the mid-1950s Parks developed a lively, almost pictorial use of colour photography. Especially in "The Restraints: Open and Hidden", a photo essay he shot for LIFE in Mobile, Alabama, in the Southern United States in 1956, colour becomes a rhetoric means to show the tense interrelationship between landscape, ethnos, habitat and contemporary consumer culture. Whether in his photograph of a dilapidated illuminated sign advertising lots for coloured people only, or his double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, a gracefully aging, grey-haired couple sitting upright on their red brocade sofa in their living room , his images show a normality that seems imbued with bourgeois values and a notion of affluence at the heart of a white majority society that exudes aggression in the form of permanent threats and restrictions.
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas (USA), the 15th child of a family of farmers. After dropping out of high school in Saint Paul, Minnesota, he worked as a bar pianist, a bellboy, a musician in a big band and a buffet car waiter for North Coast Limited between Chicago and Seattle.
Parks bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brillant, at a pawnshop in Seattle for a bargain price of 7.50 dollars. He taught himself how to use it and soon received his first assignments for fashion stores and portrait pictures.
After winning a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Parks started working as a young photographer for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington D.C.
Parks began working for LIFE magazine and published a sensational photo essay about the problem of gangs in Harlem. He was employed at LIFE until 1972.
His first novel “The Learning Tree” was published, which he made into a film in 1969. By the mid-1980s, he had directed a number of minor and major films for television and cinema, including the first two parts of the blaxploitation film series “Shaft” (1971).
Parks published “A Choice of Weapons”, the first of a total of four autobiographies.
Parks died on 7 March 2006 in New York City.