Gordon Parks (b. 1912, Fort Scott, Kansas, USA; d. 2006, New York City, New York, USA) was one of the most important photographers of twentieth-century America. With a focus on social issues; he saw photography as a tool to move people to action and change lives.
Born into poverty and segregation in Kansas in 1912, Parks was drawn to photography as a young man when he saw images of migrant workers published in a magazine. After buying a camera at a pawnshop, he taught himself how to use it and despite his lack of professional training, he found employment with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which was then chronicling the nation’s social conditions. Parks quickly developed a style that would make him one of the most celebrated photographers of his age, allowing him to break the colour line in professional photography while creating remarkably expressive images that consistently explored the social and economic impact of racism.
When the FSA closed in 1943, Parks became a freelance photographer, balancing work for fashion magazines with his passion for documenting humanitarian issues. His 1948 photo essay on the life of a Harlem gang leader won him widespread acclaim and a position as the first African American staff photographer and writer for Life, then by far the most prominent photojournalist publication in the world. Parks would remain at Life for two decades, chronicling subjects related to racism and poverty, as well as taking memorable pictures of celebrities and politicians (including Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael). His most famous images, such as ‘Emerging Man’ (1952) and ‘American Gothic’ (1942) capture the essence of activism and humanitarianism in mid-twentieth century America and have become iconic images, defining their era for later generations. They also rallied support for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, for which Parks himself was a tireless advocate as well as a documentarian.
Parks spent much of the last three decades of his life expanding his style; he continued working up until his death in 2006, winning numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts in 1988, and over fifty honorary doctorates. He was also a noted composer and author, and in 1969, became the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film based on his bestselling novel The Learning Tree. This was followed in 1971 by the hugely successful motion picture Shaft.
Important exhibitions include: The Flávio Story, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (2019); Gordon Parks: The New Tide, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (2018-19), travelling to The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland (2019), Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth (2019), Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover (2020); I Am You; Selected Works 1942-1978, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation, Frankfurt (2017-18); Back to Fort Scott, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2015); travelled to Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond (2016); Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago (2016); Segregation Story, High Museum of Art, Atlanta (2014); The Making of an Argument, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans (2013-14) and A Harlem Family 1967, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2012-13).
Parks’ work has been acquired by major museums including: The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore; Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati; Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit; International Center of Photography, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.