Gordon Parks was born in Kansas in 1912. He had 14 older siblings. His formal education began in a segregated elementary school. His high school was integrated, but African American students were limited in their participation in school activities. One of Gordon’s teachers told him that his dream of a college education would be a waste of money.
When Gordon was 14 his mother died, and he was sent to live with his older sister. Conflict with his brother-in-law drove him out of the house, so at the age of 15 Gordon left and began working in brothels as a singer and musician.
At age 28, Gordon discovered his “why,” his motivating purpose. Moved by photographs of migrant workers, he picked up a camera at a pawn shop and began to take photographs. The clerks who developed his first roll of film were so impressed by his images, that they encouraged him to apply for a fashion shoot at a nearby women’s clothing store. It was a success. At first, his work centered on fashion photography. Later he took portraits of elite society. But he was more and more attracted to capturing the images of African American lives. Some of those photos can be seen here.
With grant funding, Gordon captured images of the social conditions that many Americans face. He described his camera as a weapon exposing images that were uncomfortable to many. When his grants expired, Gordon returned to commercial photography to sustain his more socially-conscious work.
Gordon was more than just a photographer. He extended himself into many creative areas, including:
- Film – his most notable cinematic work was as the director of the blaxploitation film Shaft.
- Music – he wrote songs, symphonies, and ballet scores.
- Writing – he was the author of 15 books including books on photography, poetry, and memoirs.
- Painter – he produced abstract paintings.
- Magazines – he helped found Essence magazine.
Gordon Parks passed away at the age of 93. He never finished formal schooling but received 20 honorary doctorate degrees in his lifetime. Just imagine the creative contributions of a man who most would have written off when he was young. One of his teachers discouraged him from thinking about going to college. Yet his entire life was turned around by the encouraging words of the clerks who developed his first role of film. This one simple act opened up his creative pathway. Just imagine how many other Gordon Parks might have added to our national treasury of creative work but never received the encouragement that he received.
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“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.” – Gordon Parks
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.