Parks, Gordon, 1912-2006

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A versatile and prolific artist, Gordon Parks, Sr., warrants his status as a cultural icon. The poet, novelist, film director, and preeminent documentary and fashion photographer was born on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of fifteen children. Parks saw no reason to stay in Kansas after the death of his mother and moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, at age sixteen to live with his sister. After a disagreement with his brother-in-law, Parks soon found himself homeless, supporting himself by playing piano and basketball and working as a busboy.

While working on a train as a waiter, Parks noticed a magazine with photographs from the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The photos by such documentary photographers as Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein led him to Richard Wright's 12 Million Black Voices, other photo essays about poverty and racism, and the social and artistic voice he had been seeking. Parks bought a used camera in 1938, deciding on a career in photography. In 1941, Parks received a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation to work with Roy Stryker at the photography section of the FSA. In Washington, D.C., he trained as a photojournalist. He would work with Stryker for the next few years, producing work and honing the modernist and individualistic style he became known for by photographing small towns and industrial centers throughout America.

By the end of the 1940s, Parks was working with Life and Vogue and in that capacity did some of his most famous work. Traveling the globe and covering issues as varied as the fashion industry, poverty in Brazil, the Nation of Islam, gang violence, and eventually celebrity portraitures, Parks continued to develop and create new ways to convey meaning through his work.

Branching out from his photography in 1963, Parks directed his first film, The Learning Tree, based on his autobiographical novel of the same name. Parks went on to direct many films, including Shaft in 1971. In addition to film, Parks composed music and written several books including: A Choice of Weapons (1966), To Smile in Autumn (1979), Voices in the Mirror (1990), Arias of Silence (1994), and a retrospective of his life and work titled Half Past Autumn (1997), which was recently made into an HBO special.

Parks passed away on March 7, 2006 at the age of 93.

From The HistoryMakers™ biography:

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn American Federation of Arts records Archives of American Art
creatorOf Semple, Lorenzo. The supercops : [screenplay] / producer, William S. Belasco ; director, Gordon Parks ; from the following writer, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. HCL Technical Services, Harvard College Library
referencedIn Actors' Equity Association. Paul Robeson award ceremonies collection [sound recording], 1978-1996. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Kingston Galleries, Inc,. Letters, 1846-1912. University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Erskine, Albert, 1911-1993. Albert Erskine papers, 1930-1999. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Paul Robeson award ceremonies collection [sound recording], 1978-1996 The New York Public Library. Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.
creatorOf Gordon Parks Papers, 1946-1991, (bulk 1960-1990) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Carrington, C. Glenn, 1904-1975,. African American artists exhibit announcements, 1927-1982. Pennsylvania State University Libraries
referencedIn Martin, Steven J. Martin, Steven J., photograph collection, 1974-1985. University of Texas Libraries
referencedIn Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Department of Education. Department of education files, 1950-2000. Hirsch Library Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
creatorOf New African Visions. Songs of My People 1990-1994. Hirsch Library Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
referencedIn Rochester Institute of Technology,. Rochester Institute of Technology Honorary Degree records 1968-2007 RIT Library, Wallace Library
referencedIn Duncan, Patricia D. (Patricia DuBose), 1932-. [Patricia DuBose Duncan papers] University of Kansas Archives / MSS / Rare Books, Kenneth Spencer Research Library
referencedIn Parks, Gordon : [miscellaneous ephemeral material]. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas J. Watson Library
referencedIn Frances Wolfson Art Gallery records Archives of American Art
referencedIn Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Dept. of Education. Department of education : adult program files, 1974-1999 (bulk1986-1998). Hirsch Library Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
referencedIn Kevles, Barbara L. Barbara L. Kevles: Gordon Parks archives, ca. 1976-2001. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Parks, Gordon : Biographical file. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center
referencedIn Lothar and Eva Just Film Stills Collection. Harvard Film Archive, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn Patricia DuBose Duncan papers, circa 1900-2003 University of Kansas Kenneth Spencer Research Library Kanas Collection
creatorOf Parks, Gordon, 1912-2006. Artist file. Brooklyn Museum Libraries & Archives
creatorOf Parks, Gordon, 1912-2006. Artist file : miscellaneous uncataloged material. Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
referencedIn Black journalists, then & now [manuscript], 1986-1987. Oregon Historical Society Research Library
creatorOf Pollack, Peter, 1909-1978. Peter Pollack papers, 1945-1978. Getty Research Institute
creatorOf Parks, Gordon, 1912-2006. The Gordon Parks collection, ca. 1968-2004 Pittsburg State University, Leonard H. Axe Library
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf The HistoryMakers Video Oral History with Gordon Parks The HistoryMakers
creatorOf Oral history interview with Gordon Parks Archives of American Art
Relation Name
associatedWith Actors' Equity Association. corporateBody
associatedWith Actors' Equity Association. Paul Robeson Award corporateBody
associatedWith American Federation of Arts. corporateBody
associatedWith Doud, Richard Keith person
associatedWith Duncan, Patricia D. (Patricia DuBose), 1932- person
associatedWith Erskine, Albert, 1911-1993. person
associatedWith Frances Wolfson Art Gallery. corporateBody
associatedWith Gordon Parks Archives in the Library of Congress. corporateBody
associatedWith Kevles, Barbara L. person
associatedWith King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968. person
associatedWith Kingston Galleries, Inc, corporateBody
associatedWith Leonard H. Axe Library. Special Collections. corporateBody
associatedWith Martin, Steven J. person
associatedWith McFarlane, Bryan, person
associatedWith Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Department of Education. corporateBody
associatedWith Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Dept. of Education. corporateBody
associatedWith New African Visions. corporateBody
associatedWith New Deal and the Arts Oral History Project. corporateBody
associatedWith Pollack, Peter, 1909-1978. person
associatedWith Rochester Institute of Technology, corporateBody
associatedWith Semple, Lorenzo. person
associatedWith Stryker, Roy Emerson, 1893-1975. person
associatedWith United States. Farm Security Administration. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
United States
United States
Washington (D.C.)
Fort Scott (Kan.)
New York (N.Y.)
American literature
African American artists
African American authors
African American composers
African American photographers
Art and race
Documentary photography
Motion pictures, American
Fiction Writer
Film Director
Motion picture directors


Birth 1912-11-30

Death 2006-03-07

Birth 19121130

Death 20060307





Ark ID: w6x06dnz

SNAC ID: 21546473