Friday, February 22, 2013
The Man Behind the Camera: Gordon Parks
Last class we looked at photographs which championed the Civil Rights Movement. I became intrigued by the man behind the camera: Gordon Parks. Who was he, what is he relation to Malcolm X, and where does he fit in the Civil Rights Movement?
A video of Gordon Parks talking about his first encounter with documenting racism in Washington DC and about the power of photography:
Who was he?
Gordon Parks’ story begins in Kansas in the year 1912. He grew up with parents who emphasized hard work but who warned him of the difficulties of being a black man in the United States. By the age of 25, Parks became interested in photography and bought his first camera. His break in the world of photography began when the people developing his first set of film noted his talent and sent him to photograph fashion in Minnesota. He later moved to Chicago and continued to photograph women and women’s fashion. While bouncing from job to job, Gordon Parks took up documenting Chicago’s South Side Ghetto. His photographs were featured in a 1941 exhibit and his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement was born.
Where does Malcolm X come in?
In the 1960s Gordon Parks worked for LIFE Magazine where he was able to have considerable influence on the civil rights movement. Although he originally worked on fashion, LIFE was able to recognize Parks’ unique position and connection to the African American community. When Malcolm first met him, he was suspicious because his success within the white community. However, Malcolm X quickly began to trust him and allowed him to take photographs of him and to document problems occurring between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. His work was so provocative that LIFE put Parks under protection for a period of time. Malcolm X and Gordon Parks formed such a close bond that X eventually made Parks his daughter’s godfather. In his autobiography Malcolm writes affectionately of his friend, “Success among whites never made Parks lose touch with black reality.”
Impact on the Civil Rights Movement?
As we saw in class, Gordon first caused a buzz when he featured a photograph, American Gothic, Washington DC, which imitated the original. Instead of an elderly couple, however, Parks featured a black woman named Ella Watson holding a broom and a mop. Later, he became the first African American to work for LIFE, and to write, direct, and score a Hollywood film. Parks was deeply affected the racist attitudes of his time and said that freedom was the theme of all of his work. Over his lifetime he photographed important subjects such as segregation, the civil rights movement, poverty, and black leaders.