The extraordinary story of the life and works of iconic photographer Gordon Parks is akin to holding a mirror up to 20th century America. Parks is one of those rare figures: to reflect on his life and works is to deeply understand the society and struggles of the people who lived during his lifetime.

Parks was a humanitarian with a deep commitment to turning a lens on poverty, racism, civil rights and urban life. Primarily a photographer, Parks was as passionate about music, literature and film as he was the still image for which he is best known.

Born into poverty in 1912, Parks was raised in Midwestern America to become the first black staff photographer at the prestigious Life magazine, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century and the first African-American to direct a Hollywood movie.

Roots – the formative years

The youngest of 15 children, Gordon Parks was born to a devout Methodist mother and a hardworking father who made ends meet as a farmhand. Parks would later recount that he was born dead but by some miracle the attending doctor was able to revive him.

The family lived in Fort Scott, a small segregated town some 88 miles south of Kansas City. Parks attended the local schools where blacks could not attend social functions or play sports. He often recalled later in life that teachers told black children not to think of attending college as they were destined to become porters and maids.

After the death of his mother, Parks moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with a sister but following a family dispute he found himself homeless and scratching a living from a variety of menial jobs.

Parks would return to Fort Scott in the 1950s to revisit his early experiences, reconnect with friends from his childhood and poignantly capture the homecoming on film.

Discovering photography

Parks was drawn to photography when he picked up a discarded magazine and noticed images of migrant workers. He would later recall his first dabble with a camera:

“I went to a pawnshop and bought my first camera. It was a Voigtlander Brilliant. It cost $12.50. I took it down to Puget Sound to photograph some seagulls, and damned if I didn’t fall into the water — but I held on to the camera!”

Image by Gordon Parks

(c) Gordon Parks

A series of lucky breaks would follow and, coupled with his native talent for capturing moments on film, Parks began working for the Farm Security Administration, which had embarked on a project chronicling the nation’s social conditions.

The chronicler

Parks became a freelance photographer in the early 1940s and he balanced work for fashion magazines with his passion for documenting humanitarian issues.

Image by Gordon Parks

(c) Gordon Parks

A 1948 photo essay on the world of a Harlem gang leader earned Parks a position at Life magazine, the most prominent illustrated magazine in the world. He remained with the title for 20 years chronicling subjects such as poverty and racism, as well as capturing memorable images of politicians and celebrities. The contrast between the two colliding worlds of the poor and the elite was stark.

Image by Gordon Parks

(c) Gordon Parks

Civil rights & Shaft

Parks was an influential figure in the civil rights movement, his work inspiring and documenting the campaigns of others. Allowed access to the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X in 1965, Parks was uniquely placed to capture the rift which exploded between the two.

Parks wrote several books during his lifetime and composed a dozen piano pieces. Dabbling in movie-making during the late 1960s, Parks was invited to produce and direct the action thriller Shaft which was released in 1971.

Married and divorced three times, Parks died in March 2006. Gordon Parks said he used his camera as a “weapon” against racism, intolerance and poverty. His works remain a true representation of the ugliness and complexity of 20th Century America. Parks blurred the lines between artistry and activism and continues to inspire others to do the same to this day.