To describe Gordon Parks as a great photographer is like calling a computer a good calculator. It simply isn’t enough. Many instead prefer to call Parks a renaissance man, pointing to his successful forays into writing, music, and film. But even that lofty term falls short. There’s something about Gordon Parks and his work that eludes easy description.
If I had to take a crack at it, I’d say that Gordon Parks was a consummate artist, one of those transcendent people whose art was simply an outgrowth of his existence. He was a free person born into an unfree world, and his art expresses that basic human struggle. Fortunately, much of that art made its way into the pages of major publications, where it was (and remains to this day) a sampling of the most profound and incisive commentary on American life. Let’s take a look at just a few.
American Gothic, 1942
Parks had to start somewhere, and one of his first big gigs as a photographer came in the form of a year-long fellowship with the Information Branch of the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal government organization created to help combat rural poverty during the Great Depression. The FSA’s Information Branch became famous for their beautiful photographs of America’s working poor, produced by a star roster of photographers including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein. Parks was added to the ranks in 1941, and with the FSA’s support, began documenting the lives of Washington D.C.’s black working class.
The job produced Parks’ breakthrough work, American Gothic, Washington D.C. The photo of government janitor Ella Watson standing in front of the American flag with broom in hand was a clear send-up of Grant Wood’s 1839 original American Gothic, and an incisive critique on the lack of progress for America’s black working poor. The photo was so potent that FSA project manager Roy Stryker feared that it would get all of his photographers fired. Thankfully, the photograph was published and remains one of the most powerful portraits of American racial and economic disparity.
Red Jackson, from Harlem Gang Leader, 1948
Parks’ work with the FSA and other organizations eventually led to him being hired as the first black photographer at LIFE magazine. His first photo essay for the magazine involved Parks documenting the life of Red Jackson, a Harlem gang leader. Parks’ knack for earning the trust and friendship of his subjects allowed him access into the inner life of Red Jackson, and resulted in a complex, nuanced, and intensely personal portrait of Red and the world he lived in.
Of these photographs, the most well-known is the one simply titled, Red Jackson. It shows Red, seventeen years old, cigarette in mouth, gazing out onto the street, possibly fearing for his own life. It’s a portrait of a single kid against the brutal world of Harlem, trying his best to survive in whatever shelter he can find.
Ingrid Bergman, 1949
Though Parks’ work often centered around the struggles of black America, he often pointed out that his work was never exclusively about that subject. Parks said himself, “I’d become sort of involved in things that were happening to people. No matter what color they be, whether they be Indians, or Negroes, the poor white person or anyone who was I thought more or less getting a bad shake.” One of the most interesting manifestations of this philosophy is his LIFE magazine photo essay on actress Ingrid Bergman.
At the time, Ingrid Bergman was under fire from the world’s media for her publicized affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini. LIFE magazine sent Parks in to document the affair during their filming of Stromboli, hoping to get the juicy shot of Bergman and Rossellini that would boost magazine sales. Parks instead gave them something totally different, and much more powerful.
Parks had a chance to capture Bergman and Rossellini in a lovers’ embrace, but chose instead to put his camera down out of respect for their private moment. In his words, “the moment that slipped away was undeserving of betrayal.” Bergman and Rossellini noticed Parks’ remarkable empathy in putting down the camera, and subsequently invited him along for a walk on the beach, which provided Parks the shots he needed.
Those shots of Bergman and Rossellini, however, are not the shots that make the photo essay into the classic it is today. Instead it is Parks’ portrait of Bergman, alone, being scrutinized by the locals of Stromboli just as she was being scrutinized by the world’s media. Parks’ characteristic empathy and humanism shines through in this portrait, which showcases both his artistic range and his fierce commitment to his philosophy, no matter the subject.
A Harlem Family, 1967
Of all of Parks’ photo essays, A Harlem Family may be the most tragic. The essay centers around the Fontenelles, a poor black family living in the squalor of late 1960s Harlem. Parks spent months living with the family and documenting their personal struggles in order to paint the bleak picture of the American ghetto. Parks, in a word, succeeded. The pain of the Fontenelles becomes clearer and more gruesome with every photo, with Parks’ accompanying words serving as the haunting score. Powerful though the essay was, there was a price that had to be paid for the story.
The essay proved so potent that the LIFE readership wanted to show support for the Fontenelles. The contributions accumulated into a large enough sum that LIFE relocated the Fontenelles to a nicer neighborhood in Queens, NY. But the tragedy and pain of the Fontenelles followed them to Queens, and the house was lost in a fire just a year later, killing the father, Norman Sr., and a son, Kenneth. The rest of the Fontenelles were forced to move back to Harlem and found themselves significantly worse off than when they started.
The tragedy was one that haunted Parks. In his memoir, A Hungry Heart, Parks says, “Sometimes I question my reasons for having ever touched the Fontenelles. I’ve been told that their story helped other Black families escape a similar existence. Perhaps that’s so, but it doesn’t alter my feelings about that family’s misfortunes or those untimely deaths they met. The painful memories are still there…”
Of these memories, the one that sticks out is the final photo in A Harlem Family. It’s a photo of Richard and his mother Bessie, the morning after Bessie scalded her husband in a fight. The entire pain of the Fontenelles is captured in this image of a dismayed Bessie lying down with her child who stares deeply, and knowingly, into the camera.
Okay, this isn’t a photograph, but I’ve decided to include it in an attempt to showcase Parks’ incredible artistic range and to lighten the mood a little. Parks was one of the great polymaths of the 20th century whose scope reached far beyond the medium of photography. For me, there is no greater example of Parks’ artistic versatility than his 1971 classic action film, Shaft.
In stark contrast to the seriousness of Parks’ work, Shaft was a fun, raunchy action movie which, among other things, had a black protagonist played by actor and all-around badass Richard Roundtree. Parks made this move because he wanted black Americans to have their own Humphrey-Bogart-as-Philip-Marlowe type figure, a lone wolf private detective who doesn’t answer to anybody, least of all the white establishment.
Shaft became a huge success among both black and white audiences. In fact, it became so successful that it unintentionally spawned the “blaxploitation” genre of films. Though blaxploitation films are roundly criticized for their, well, exploitations of black stereotypes, it is important to note that Shaft was not made to exploit. It was made out of a genuine desire to give a hero to a people who did not have many heroes to look up to. In creating this hero, Parks gave us the baddest mother shut-yo-mouth of them all, John Shaft. Can you dig it?