March 8, 2006


Gordon Parks, a Master of the Camera, Dies at 93 (ANDY GRUNDBERG, 3/08/06, NY Times)

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. [...]

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 cinematographer.

"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.

Gordon Parks, an American legend (Jym Wilson, 3/07/06, USA TODAY)
Gordon Parks' unique American perspective (Maria Puente and Jym Wilson, 3/07/06, USA TODAY)
American Classic: Grant Wood and the meaning of his art. (Paul A. Cantor, 03/06/2006, Weekly Standard)
On the issue of race, Biel eventually gets around to noting what might seem obvious from the beginning: that the figures in American Gothic are both white. But instead of accusing Wood of racism, Biel uses the occasion to discuss one of the many interesting variations on American Gothic, a photograph with the same title taken by the African-American artist Gordon Parks in Washington in 1942. In front of an enormous American flag hanging on the wall at the Farm Security Administration, Parks posed a black cleaning woman named Ella Watson--posed her in a way that clearly calls to mind the Grant Wood painting. According to Biel, this photo made an important statement: "The normative whiteness of the now iconic American Gothic did not go unrecognized and unchallenged."

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 8, 2006 7:58 AM

Why does a picture of a woman with a mop and broom in her hands "speak to the existence of racial bigotry and inequality in the nation's capital"? Just asking.

Posted by: erp at March 8, 2006 8:24 AM


I imagine that finding a black woman to pose with the tools of her trade, other than a mop and a broom, was virtually impossible at that time and place.

Posted by: Rick T. at March 8, 2006 9:06 AM

To "get" Park's photo, you have to know the title and be familiar with the namesake painting. I agree more with Biel's interpretation.

Posted by: ted welter at March 8, 2006 11:07 AM

The photo is so powerful because it references Wood's painting and with its new subject says "Me too." It was a thunderbolt in its day, and it still crackles today. It's both beautiful and true, as all good art is.

Posted by: Luciferous at March 8, 2006 11:22 AM

I live in a college town. A theater showed a movie directed by a black man in the 1910s or 1920s. The movie was advertised throughout the city as showing a talented director working with the primitive motion picture filming equipment available at the time.

The audience in that theater was all whites.


Posted by: John J. Coupal at March 8, 2006 11:19 PM

One of my heroes passed away this week, Gordon Parks. The only reason I got into this artsy-fartsy lifestyle is because of the obstacles that he had to overcome to achieve success.

When I was growing up in the 50s, there were not a lot of role models unless you were into sports. After I got out of high school, like most kids, I had no ideal what I wanted to do. So I went to the State Employment office and took a barrage of test to see what I was qualified to do, and career options. The results came back and I amazed my self. Never had a clue I was that talented, since I did Cs & Ds all through school. THE PLOT THICKENS! The "colored guy" who was in charge of getting me on a career path, gave me the good news. He was going to put me in a special program for gifted kids on the way up. Since we was a "brother of color" he was going to "pull some strings" to get me in the program.

Then he goes through his card file and tells me to take a job as a janitor at a local furniture store until the position opens. I might have had a terminal case of naivete, but at 17 I knew bullshit when I heard it. If I went along with his program, I would still have a bucket and mop, and living in the housing projects watching the "Jerry Springer Show."

I was pissed off for a couple of weeks until I met a local photographer in our community who use to give seminars at the drug store where we use to hang out. He explained something to me that my father had tried to get through since I was in diapers. If you want to be successful in life you have to know the difference between dog droppings and rose petals. Some you leave alone, some you pick up.

To cut to the chaise he told me about Gordon Parks who started with a camera he bought in a pawnshop, and became a photographer for Life Magazine. So if I owe anyone the spiritual support for changing my life, it has to be Mr. Parks.

Mac McAllister

Posted by: Mac McAllister at March 10, 2006 9:24 PM
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» Shaft's Father Passes from Ed
Gordon Parks, the man who directed the seminal "blaxploitation" movie, Shaft, was 93. Like Stanley Kubrick, he traded a brilliant career as a magazine still photographer for the movie world. Parks' son had a similar talent, directing Shaft's equally po... [Read More]