[Marxism] Gordon Parks, a Master of the Camera, Dies at 93

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Wed Mar 8 03:14:45 MST 2006

Parks's famous image of Malcolm X addressing a Harlem street rally, 
taken from behind the speaker, showing the Black throngs who came to 
listen to the then-minister of the Nation of Islam's Temple No. 7 is
extremely powerful. I wrote to him out of the blue, requesting his
permission to use that image as the cover illustration of a pamphlet
I'd hoped to publish containing an essay: "How The New York Times
Distorted Malcolm X's Views on Self-Defense". A copy of he essay was
enclosed. He wrote back promptly granting me the rights, asking for 
no compensation, adding, "I liked your essay very much. Good luck."

In time I'm planning to print that pamphlet and regret Parks won't 
be able to see it when the project is done. That picture appears as 
the back cover of a 1993 anthology MALCOLM X: THE GREAT PHOTOGRAPHS. 

The essay had been suggested as a student project by George Breitman
in MALCOLM X: THE MAN AND HIS IDEAS (1965). I took up Breitman's 
proposal, read through everything the New York Times had written on
Malcolm during his lifetime, and that's how it came into being.

You can read the essay at my site:

Another Gordon Parks image of Malcolm X, from 1963:

More about Gordon Parks:

Walter Lippmann
Los Angeles, California
March 8, 2006

March 8, 2006
Gordon Parks, a Master of the Camera, Dies at 93

Gordon Parks, the photographer, filmmaker, writer and composer who used his
prodigious, largely self-taught talents to chronicle the African-American
experience and to retell his own personal history, died yesterday at his
home in Manhattan. He was 93.

His death was announced by Genevieve Young, his former wife and executor.
Gordon Parks was the first African-American to work as a staff photographer
for Life magazine and the first black artist to produce and direct a major
Hollywood film, "The Learning Tree," in 1969.

He developed a large following as a photographer for Life for more than 20
years, and by the time he was 50 he ranked among the most influential image
makers of the postwar years. In the 1960's he began to write memoirs,
novels, poems and screenplays, which led him to directing films. In addition
to "The Learning Tree," he directed the popular action films "Shaft" and
"Shaft's Big Score!" In 1970 he helped found Essence magazine and was its
editorial director from 1970 to 1973.

An iconoclast, Mr. Parks fashioned a career that resisted categorization. No
matter what medium he chose for his self-expression, he sought to challenge
stereotypes while still communicating to a large audience. In finding early
acclaim as a photographer despite a lack of professional training, he became
convinced that he could accomplish whatever he set his mind to. To an
astonishing extent, he proved himself right.

Gordon Parks developed his ability to overcome barriers in childhood, facing
poverty, prejudice and the death of his mother when he was a teen-ager.
Living by his wits during what would have been his high-school years, he
came close to being claimed by urban poverty and crime. But his nascent
talent, both musical and visual, was his exit visa.

His success as a photographer was largely due to his persistence and
persuasiveness in pursuing his subjects, whether they were film stars and
socialites or an impoverished slum child in Brazil.

Mr. Parks's years as a contributor to Life, the largest-circulation picture
magazine of its day, lasted from 1948 to 1972, and it cemented his
reputation as a humanitarian photojournalist and as an artist with an eye
for elegance. He specialized in subjects relating to racism, poverty and
black urban life, but he also took exemplary pictures of Paris fashions,
celebrities and politicians.

"I still don't know exactly who I am," Mr. Parks wrote in his 1979 memoir,
"To Smile in Autumn." He added, "I've disappeared into myself so many
different ways that I don't know who 'me' is."

Much of his literary energy was channeled into memoirs, in which he mined
incidents from his adolescence and early career in an effort to find deeper
meaning in them. His talent for telling vivid stories was used to good
effect in "The Learning Tree," which he wrote first as a novel and later
converted into a screenplay. This was a coming-of-age story about a young
black man whose childhood plainly resembled the author's. It was well
received when it was published in 1963 and again in 1969, when Warner
Brothers released the film version. Mr. Parks wrote, produced and directed
the film and wrote the music for its soundtrack. He was also the

"Gordon Parks was like the Jackie Robinson of film," Donald Faulkner, the
director of the New York State Writers Institute, once said. "He broke
ground for a lot of people — Spike Lee, John Singleton."

Mr. Parks's subsequent films, "Shaft" (1971) and "Shaft's Big Score!"
(1972), were prototypes for what became known as blaxploitation films. Among
Mr. Park's other accomplishments were a second novel, four books of memoirs,
four volumes of poetry, a ballet and several orchestral scores. As a
photographer Mr. Parks combined a devotion to documentary realism with a
knack for making his own feelings self-evident. The style he favored was
derived from the Depression-era photography project of the Farm Security
Administration, which he joined in 1942 at the age of 30.

Perhaps his best-known photograph, which he titled "American Gothic," was
taken during his brief time with the agency; it shows a black cleaning woman
named Ella Watson standing stiffly in front of an American flag, a mop in
one hand and a broom in the other. Mr. Parks wanted the picture to speak to
the existence of racial bigotry and inequality in the nation's capital. He
was in an angry mood when he asked the woman to pose, having earlier been
refused service at a clothing store, a movie theater and a restaurant.

Anger at social inequity was at the root of many of Mr. Parks's best
photographic stories, including his most famous Life article, which focused
on a desperately sick boy living in a miserable Rio de Janeiro slum. Mr.
Parks described the plight of the boy, Flavio da Silva, in realistic detail.
In one photograph Flavio lies in bed, looking close to death. In another he
sits behind his baby brother, stuffing food into the baby's mouth while the
baby reaches his wet, dirty hands into the dish for more food.

Mr. Parks's pictures of Flavio's life created a groundswell of public
response when they were published in 1961. Life's readers sent some $30,000
in contributions, and the magazine arranged to have the boy flown to Denver
for medical treatment for asthma and paid for a new home in Rio for his

Mr. Parks credited his first awareness of the power of the photographic
image to the pictures taken by his predecessors at the Farm Security
Administration, including Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein and
Ben Shahn. He first saw their photographs of migrant workers in a magazine
he picked up while working as a waiter in a railroad car. "I saw that the
camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts
of social wrongs," he told an interviewer in 1999. "I knew at that point I
had to have a camera."

Many of Mr. Parks's early photo essays for Life, like his 1948 story of a
Harlem youth gang called the Midtowners, were a revelation for many of the
magazine's predominantly white readers and a confirmation for Mr. Parks of
the camera's power to shape public discussion.

But Mr. Parks made his mark mainly with memorable single images within his
essays, like "American Gothic," which were iconic in the manner of posters.
His portraits of Malcolm X (1963), Muhammad Ali (1970) and the exiled
Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver (1970) evoked the styles and strengths of
black leadership in the turbulent transition from civil rights to black

But at Life Mr. Parks also used his camera for less politicized, more
conventional ends, photographing the socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, who became
his friend; a fashionable Parisian in a veiled hat puffing hard on her
cigarette, and Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini at the beginning of
their notorious love affair.

On his own time he photographed female nudes in a style akin to that of
Baroque painting, experimented with double-exposing color film and recorded
pastoral scenes that evoke the pictorial style of early-20-century art

Much as his best pictures aspired to be metaphors, Mr. Parks shaped his own
life story as a cautionary tale about overcoming racism, poverty and a lack
of formal education. It was a project he pursued in his memoirs and in his
novel; all freely mix documentary realism with a fictional sensibility.

The first version of his autobiography was "A Choice of Weapons" (1966),
which was followed by "To Smile in Autumn" (1979) and "Voices in the Mirror:
An Autobiography" (1990). The most recent account of his life appeared in
1997 in "Half Past Autumn" (Little, Brown), a companion to a traveling
exhibition of his photographs.

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born on Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort
Scott, Kan. He was the youngest of 15 children born to a tenant farmer,
Andrew Jackson Parks, and the former Sarah Ross. Although mired in poverty
and threatened by segregation and the violence it engendered, the family was
bound by Sarah Parks's strong conviction that dignity and hard work could
overcome bigotry.

Young Gordon's security ended when his mother died. He was sent to St. Paul,
Minn., to live with the family of an older sister. But the arrangement
lasted only a few weeks; during a quarrel, Mr. Parks's brother-in-law threw
him out of the house. Mr. Parks learned to survive on the streets, using his
untutored musical gifts to find work as a piano player in a brothel and
later as the singer for a big band. He attended high school in St. Paul but
never graduated.

In 1933 he married a longtime sweetheart, Sally Alvis, and they soon had a
child, Gordon Jr. While his family stayed near his wife's relatives in
Minneapolis, Mr. Parks traveled widely to find work during the Depression.

He joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, toured as a semi-pro basketball
player and worked as a busboy and waiter. It was while he was a waiter on
the North Coast Limited, a train that ran between Chicago and Seattle, that
he picked up a magazine discarded by a passenger and saw for the first time
the documentary pictures of Lange, Rothstein and the other photographers of
the Farm Security Administration.

In 1938 Mr. Parks purchased his first camera at a Seattle pawn shop. Within
months he had his pictures exhibited in the store windows of the Eastman
Kodak store in Minneapolis, and he began to specialize in portraits of
African-American women.

He also talked his way into making fashion photographs for an exclusive St.
Paul clothing store. Marva Louis, the elegant wife of the heavyweight
champion Joe Louis, chanced to see his photographs and was so impressed that
she suggested that he move to Chicago for better opportunities to do more of

In Chicago Mr. Parks continued to produce society portraits and fashion
images, but he also turned to documenting the slums of the South Side. His
efforts gained him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, which he spent as an
apprentice with the Farm Security Administration's photography project in
Washington under its director, Roy Stryker.

In 1943, with World War II under way, the farm agency was disbanded and
Stryker's project was transferred to the Office of War Information (O.W.I.).
Mr. Parks became a correspondent for the O.W.I. photographing the 332d
Fighter Group, an all-black unit based near Detroit. Unable to accompany the
pilots overseas, he relocated to Harlem to search for freelance assignments.

In 1944 Alexander Liberman, then art director of Vogue, asked him to
photograph women's fashions, and Mr. Parks's pictures appeared regularly in
the magazine for five years. Mr. Parks's simultaneous pursuit of the worlds
of beauty and of tough urban textures made him a natural for Life magazine.
After talking himself into an audience with Wilson Hicks, Life's fabled
photo editor, he emerged with two plum assignments: one to create a photo
essay on gang wars in Harlem, the other to photograph the latest Paris

Life often assigned Mr. Parks to subjects that would have been difficult or
impossible for a white photojournalist to carry out, such as the Black
Muslim movement and the Black Panther Party. But Mr. Parks also enjoyed
making definitive portraits of Barbra Streisand, Samuel Barber, Aaron
Copland, Alberto Giacometti and Alexander Calder. From 1949 to 1951 he was
assigned to the magazine's bureau in Paris, where he photographed everything
from Marshal Pétain's funeral to scenes of everyday life. While in Paris he
socialized with the expatriate author Richard Wright and wrote his first
piano concerto, using a musical notation system of his own devising.

As the sole black photographer on Life's masthead in the 1960's, Mr. Parks
was frequently characterized by black militants as a man willing to work for
the oppressor. In the mid-1960's he declined to endorse a protest against
the magazine by a number of black photographers, including Roy DeCarava, who
said they felt that the editorial assignment staff discriminated against
them. Mr. DeCarava never forgave him.

At the same time, according to Mr. Parks's memoirs, Life's editors came to
question his ability to be objective. "I was black," he noted in "Half Past
Autumn," "and my sentiments lay in the heart of black fury sweeping the

In 1962, at the suggestion of Carl Mydans, a fellow Life photographer, Mr.
Parks began to write a story based on his memories of his childhood in
Kansas. The story became the novel "The Learning Tree," and its success
opened new horizons, leading him to write his first memoir, "A Choice of
Weapons"; to combine his photographs and poems in a book called "A Poet and
His Camera" (1968) and, most significantly, to become a film director, with
the movie version of "The Learning Tree" in 1969.

Mr. Parks's second film, "Shaft," released in 1971, was a hit of a different
order. Ushering in an onslaught of genre movies in which black protagonists
played leading roles in violent, urban crime dramas, "Shaft" was both a
commercial blockbuster and a racial breakthrough. Its hero, John Shaft,
played by Richard Roundtree, was a wily private eye whose success came from
operating in the interstices of organized crime and the law. Isaac Hayes won
an Oscar for the theme music, and the title song became a pop hit.

After the successful "Shaft" sequel in 1972 and a comedy called "The Super
Cops" (1974), Mr. Parks's Hollywood career sputtered to a halt with the film
"Leadbelly" (1976). Intended as an homage to the folk singer Huddie
Ledbetter, who died in 1949, the movie was both a critical and a box-office
failure. Afterward Mr. Parks made films only for television.

After departing Life in 1972, the year the magazine shut down as a weekly,
Mr. Parks continued to write and compose. His second novel, "Shannon"
(1981), about Irish immigrants at the beginning of the century, is the least
autobiographical of his writing. He wrote the music and the libretto for the
1989 ballet "Martin," a tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
choreographed by Rael Lamb.

He also continued to photograph. But much of Mr. Parks's artistic energy in
the 1980's and 1990's was spent summing up his productive years with the
camera. In 1987, the first major retrospective exhibition of his photographs
was organized by the New York Public Library and the Ulrich Museum of Art at
Wichita State University.

The more recent retrospective, "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks,"
was organized in 1997 by the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington. It later
traveled to New York and to other cities. Many honors came Mr. Parks's way,
including a National Medal of Arts award from President Ronald Reagan in
1988. The man who never finished high school was a recipient of 40 honorary
doctorates from colleges and universities in the United States and England.

His marriages to Sally Alvis, Elizabeth Campbell and Genevieve Young ended
in divorce. A son from his first marriage, Gordon Parks Jr., died in 1979 in
a plane crash while making a movie in Kenya. He is survived by his daughter
Toni Parks Parson and his son David, also from his first marriage, and a
daughter, Leslie Parks Harding, from his second marriage; five
grandchildren; and five great grandchildren.

"I'm in a sense sort of a rare bird," Mr. Parks said in an interview in The
New York Times in 1997. "I suppose a lot of it depended on my determination
not to let discrimination stop me." He never forgot that one of his teachers
told her students not to waste their parents' money on college because they
would end up as porters or maids anyway. He dedicated one honorary degree to
her because he had been so eager to prove her wrong.

"I had a great sense of curiosity and a great sense of just wanting to
achieve," he said. "I just forgot I was black and walked in and asked for a
job and tried to be prepared for what I was asking for."

    * Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

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