Remember the movie Green Book? The one that won four Oscars, two Golden Globes and starred Bulgarian Dimitar Marinov?
Yes, the same one. The film’s title was inspired by a book used by blacks to safely travel across the states in the days before the civil rights movements. It includes the hotels and restaurants where people of color are allowed to stay. The plot follows an Italian-American chauffeur and bodyguard hired to drive and guard Don Shirley, a famous African-American jazz pianist, during his tour of the highly conservative American South, where Jim Crow segregation laws still apply.
And it sounds really startling to be able to play and entertain white people, but not be able to use their bathroom because you’re black.
Why am I telling you about this movie? Because twenty years before the story that the film follows, another American of color – the photographer Gordon Parks – tries to jump the barriers and in many ways succeeds. We can only guess what it cost him to go from a pianist in a brothel to the first African-American staff photographer of “LIFE” magazine. Let’s add the fact that his film “The Tree of Knowledge” /1969/ is included in the National Film Library of the United States Library of Congress.
Who is Gordon Parks?
- Full Name – Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks –
- photographer, filmmaker, composer, novelist, poet and civil rights activist.
- He was the first African-American staff photographer at LIFE magazine.
- Actively works on the topic of racial discrimination in America.
- In parallel, he photographed fashion sessions for Vogue magazine, despite the racism that ran rampant in the fashion business in that era.
- Published 9 autobiographical nonfiction books and guides, as well as 10 photo albums.
- He shot 6 movies.
- He writes not only the scripts but also the music for his films.
- He composed a concerto for piano and orchestra and even a ballet.
- Married 3 times, father of four children.
Born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912. He is the youngest of 15 children in the family. In 1928, his mother died and he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where his sisters lived. After some time, due to a misunderstanding with their husbands, his sisters throw him out of the house. He made a living by playing the piano in a brothel, working as a waiter, a basketball player, and an employee of the Civilian Environmental Protection Corps. At the age of 25, Parks began taking photography seriously. At the age of 25, Parks became serious about photography. The day he saw pictures from the Farmers’ Assistance Service project and a weekly movie review with photographer Norman Ali was a turning point in his life. Parks bought an old Voigtlander Brilliant camera and started taking pictures.
Despite his lack of professional training, he won the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship (a charity that invested $4.4 million in its most significant program to build schools for African-American children) in 1942. It secured him a position in the photographic division of the FSA in Washington, DC, and later at the Office of War Information (OWI). Working for these agencies, which were then chronicling the nation’s social conditions, Parks quickly found his style, which would make him one of the most famous photographers of his era.
At the same time, he began to work closely with the photographer of the Ministry of National Economy, Roy Stricker, and made his first professional photography – “American Gothic”.
Streaker moves to the Ministry of Military Information and takes Park with him. It was during this period that he created some of his most impressive work, photographing working-class families in small towns.
In 1944, Parks became interested in fashion photography and, despite racism in the fashion business, was hired by Vogue magazine. Just three years later, in 1947, he published his first book – Flash Photography.
In 1948, his second book, “Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture”, was published. At that time, LIFE magazine hired Parks to film the gang wars in Harlem, New York. As a result of this project, one of the most famous portraits of Parks was born – “Red Jackson, leader of the Harlem gang”.
Major magazine reporting dominated Parks’ work from 1948 to 1972. He chronicled black America’s struggle for equality, revealing the harsh realities of life in Harlem, institutionalized racism, and shocking poverty. Parks was equally successful as a portraitist, capturing figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King alongside artists including Duke Ellington, Ingrid Bergman and Hugh Grant.
In 1950, Gordon Parks went to Europe as a correspondent for LIFE magazine for two years.
For the last three decades of his life, Parks continued to develop his style and continued to work until his death in 2006. He left behind an extraordinary body of work that documented American life and culture for nearly 60 years with a focus on race relations, poverty , civil rights and urban life.
He has been recognized with more than fifty honorary doctorates, and among his many awards is the National Medal of Arts, which he received in 1988. His works are in the permanent collections of major museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Baltimore Museum of Art; The Cincinnati Art Museum; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the International Center of Photography, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, all in New York; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The St. Louis Art Museum; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.
Author: Krasimira Pastirova