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. 


  1. I found this class particularly interesting and I am glad I now know more about Parks himself.

    Mass media was a technique implemented in many strands of the Civil Rights Movement. I have mainly studied King's utilisation of the then new medium of television to display the hypocrisy of American 'freedom' to the world. It is therefore fascinating to see Malcolm X employing media too, albeit in a different way.

    The juxapostional imagery in Parks' photography is particularly poignant. Images of everyday activities occur in tandem with symbols of Jim Crow, for example in the photo of the woman and girl in their Sunday best under a neon sign stating 'colored entrance'. These images demonstrated to the public the stifling 'normality' of racism.

    I like his interpretation of American Gothic. There is much to be said about his choices in this photograph. The woman is standing alone unlike the original picture, perhaps a aesthetic manifestation of the separation of African Americans from the core American rights as indicated by the flag.

    I am by not means a photography expert but I do find images of the Civil Rights Movement particularly fascinating. It is so well documented and the photographs are simultaneously shocking and hopeful.

  2. I am glad you shared this research on Gordon Park- I was also intrigued by our class discussion on his photography. I think that it is interesting that he began his career photographing fashion, and it is telling as to how he captures people in his photos. Someone who is snapping pictures of women posing or walking down a runway would have a good understanding of the technique involved in capturing the human body.
    I think that it is specifically important to point out Park's theme of freedom. His work and contribution to the Civil Rights Movement seems to fit in perfectly with our class. Freedom is a theme that I think all of the activists and authors that we have and will be discussing in this course are thread together by. His work with such prominent black leaders shows a side that words cannot. A photograph has the ability to reveal a reality that cannot be expressed through writing, but also to show a viewpoint not seen before.


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