Gordon Parks: Arts in the service of a social vision

Gordon Parks once told an interviewer that he was sitting in a darkened theater in Chicago, watching a newsreel, when he discovered the power of documentary images.

Shortly after, in 1938, Parks bought a camera in a pawnshop for $7.50. He taught himself how to use it, showed his first pictures in an Eastman Kodak store in Minneapolis, then got work taking fashion photos for a store. He won a photography fellowship, which he spent working as an apprentice with the Farm Security Administration.


After several more jobs, he landed on the masthead of Life magazine, where, over more than two decades, his iconic photos of African American working people, civil rights heroes and ordinary people facing poverty helped upend the nation’s stereotypes.

That would be a remarkable biography in itself. But for Parks, it also established a lifelong pattern of discovery, experimentation, learning and accomplishment—all in service of an enduring commitment to social justice.

“He was driven by the injustice he saw and the losses he felt, but he was never embittered by it,” said Genevieve Young, his former wife and a board member of the Gordon Parks Foundation. “His attitude was, if you see something you want to do, just do it. It takes guts, but do it.”

Writing? In 1962, he tried his hand at a novel based on his childhood, The Learning Tree. Even as he went on to write five more autobiographical books, he wrote a screenplay for The Learning Tree, a 1969 film that Parks ended up directing. That launched a brief Hollywood career, which included directing the blockbuster film Shaft, and paving the way for other African American filmmakers.

Music? As a teen, he taught himself to play piano, which got him a job in a gentlemen’s club, and later, as a pianist and singer in a band. Later in life, he composed a concerto, a symphony and a ballet—which he also choreographed and dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.

That remarkable story will be carried forward to future generations at the Gordon Parks Arts Hall at the Laboratory Schools of the University of Chicago. The schools announced that the new, multi-disciplinary facility will carry Parks’ name at the request of Mellody Hobson and George Lucas, and in recognition of a $25 million grant from the George Lucas Family Foundation.

“This naming represents an important opportunity to introduce young people to the rich work of Gordon Parks and to let his life story inspire them,” said Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation. “We applaud this prominent addition to Gordon Parks’ legacy and look forward to opportunities for joint programming.”

Parks started out with little. Born in 1912, the 15th child of a tenant farmer in Fort Scott, Kan., his youth was marked by poverty and discrimination. His mother died when he was 15, and he set out on his own shortly after that.

Parks lived for a time in St. Paul, Minn., then moved to Chicago, before finding work as a waiter on a passenger train line between Seattle, St. Paul and Chicago.

As his photographic career took off, Parks traveled widely. Some of his best-known works include “American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942,” a photograph of an African American cleaning woman in Washington, D.C., holding a broom in one hand and a mop in the other, with an American flag behind her; a series of photos telling the story of Flavio da Silva, a child living in slums in Brazil; and photo essays about young people growing up in Harlem and on the South Side of Chicago.

Parks also captured images of the famous. Some were celebrities, such as actress Ingrid Bergman, composer Aaron Copeland, and artists Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti. Others were more controversial figures for Life’s mass audience, such as Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Eldridge Cleaver. Parks also would become a celebrated fashion photographer.

Parks died at age 93, in 2006. The Gordon Parks Foundation in New York controls his creative work. The foundation makes the work of Gordon Parks available to the public through exhibitions, books and electronic media, as well as supporting artistic and educational activities that advance what Parks called, “the search for a better life and a better world.”