Gordon Parks: Photographer, Filmmaker, and Journalist

By Abby Schreiber

February at FOREVER is Family History Month, and nationwide, it's Black History Month as well. We cannot begin to tell family stories without acknowledging & honoring the contributions of the Black community and the legacies left for their families in turn.

Let's talk about Gordon Parks.

The Invisible Man, Harlem, New York, 1952

Photo credit: Gordon Parks Foundation and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Gordon Parks was a groundbreaking photographer, filmmaker, and writer who made significant contributions to the field of photography and is widely considered one of the most influential photographers of his time. Born in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks grew up in poverty and faced discrimination as an African American. Despite these challenges, he found success as a photographer and filmmaker. Through his powerful images, he helped raise awareness of social and political issues, shining a light on the struggles and triumphs of a community often marginalized by society.

Parks began his career as a photographer in the 1940s, working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and later for Life magazine. It was during this time that he began to develop his signature style, capturing powerful images that combined artistry with authenticity. His work often focused on themes of poverty, segregation, and inequality, and the innate humanity in us all.

While at Life, he covered a wide range of subjects, from fashion to civil rights. He was the first African American photographer to work for the magazine, and his work helped to break down barriers in the photography industry.

One of Parks' most famous photographs is "American Gothic," which was taken in 1942 and depicts Ella Watson, a Black woman holding a broom in front of a government housing project. This photograph is a powerful commentary on poverty and inequality in America, and it remains one of Parks' most well-known works. If it looks familiar to you, it probably is - Parks' inspiration for this shot was the famous painting of the same name, "American Gothic."

American Gothic, Washington, DC, 1942

Photo credit: The Gordon Parks Foundation. Courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

American Gothic, 1930

Photo credit: Grant Wood, The Art Institute of Chicago

Another one of Parks' notable projects was his photo essay “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty.” It focused on a poor family living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Through his photographs, Parks was able to give voice to the struggles of this family, highlighting the challenges of poverty and class that were prevalent in many parts of the world at the time. His images were both beautiful and haunting, and they helped to bring attention to the realities often overlooked by the media.

Fashions - Long Haired Furs, October 1952

Photo credit: Gordon Parks

In addition to his work as a photographer, Parks also made significant contributions to the world of film. He was the first African American to direct a major Hollywood film, "The Learning Tree," in 1969. Through his films, Parks continued to explore the themes of disparity and social justice that were so important to him as a photographer.

Parks' works continue to inspire and influence artists across the globe. His commitment to capturing the humanity of his subjects, no matter how difficult the circumstances, set a high standard for photographers everywhere. He will always be remembered as a visionary in his field.

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