Through the lens of visual maestro Gordon Parks (b. 1912), 1940s America sprung to life in a way it hadn’t before: with truth about the breadth of its glory and pain, joy and stains; its fight and flight, glamour and repulsion – across six decades, and in between its corrosive racial divides. Within it, Parks’ luminous work simultaneously centered the panoply of Black life, love, pain, achievement, oppression, resistance and resilience – while armed with a brilliant sensibility on one-hand, a camera in the other, and his freedom as an intrepid artist surrounding it all. With America having marked its first in celebrating Juneteenth as a federal holiday -- commemorating the end of slavery in the United States -- we exalt iconic photographer, writer, filmmaker, poet, painter, musician, and all-around artist extraordinaire: Kansas-born Gordon Parks, who achieved countless firsts, while documenting Blackness and beyond, within the complicated kaleidoscope of American life. From portraiture to fashion photography, photojournalism to abstract works, Gordon Parks’ influential works serve up gorgeousness in equal parts, in color and black & white. Lucky for us, it’s just how he saw things.
Kudos to Tribeca Film Festival on its landmark 20th Anniversary in having showcased this very special Spotlight Documentary: A CHOICE OF WEAPONS INSPIRED BY GORDON PARKS (directed by John Maggio, and inspired by Gordon Parks’ memoir) -- a sweeping survey of Gordon Parks’ life, legacy and works that made its bold world premiere in TFF21’s exciting and artful line-up!
MOMENTS OF GORDON PARKS
“UNTIL YOU'RE SURE OF YOURSELF, YOU WON'T BE SURE OF ANYTHING."
"I FEEL IT IS THE HEART, NOT THE EYE, THAT SHOULD DETERMINE THE CONTENT OF THE PHOTOGRAPH. WHAT THE EYE SEES IS ITS OWN. WHAT THE HEART CAN PERCEIVE IS A VERY DIFFERENT MATTER."
Born in 1912 into poverty and segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas, Gordon [Roger Alexander Buchanan] Parks -- the youngest of 15 children – was drawn to photography as a young man when he saw images of migrant workers in a magazine. – ARTnews, Alex Greenberger
During his upbringing in Kansas in the 1910s and ’20s, Parks attended segregated schools; white boys threw him in a river, to see if he was able to swim. – ARTnews, Alex Greenberger
"NOTHING CAME EASY. I WAS JUST BORN WITH A NEED TO EXPLORE EVERY PART OF MY MIND. AND WITH LONG SEARCHING AND HARD WORK, I BECAME DEVOTED TO MY RESTLESSNESS."
Displaced from his home as a youth, Parks relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota to live with his sister’s family. When that fell apart, hungry and freezing, he rode the trolleys between St. Paul and Minneapolis at night for two weeks; even having to roast an injured pigeon to keep from starving. Finally, Parks landed a job as a dishwasher by day. And by night, Parks harnessed his natural music abilities by playing piano in a local brothel.
In his 20s, Gordon Parks turned to photography -- buying a $7.50 Voightlander Brilliant camera at a pawn shop in Seattle. His kitchen became his studio, and he transformed tin cans into lighting equipment. – ARTnews, Alex Greenberger
"I HAD PURCHASED A WEAPON I HOPED TO USE AGAINST A WARPED PAST AND AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE."
Gordon Parks, whose artistry challenged Jim Crow laws and who broke barriers in every sense, became the first African-American to photograph for Life and Vogue magazines.
Reflecting on his storied life, Gordon Parks’ mother, who died suddenly when he was a teen, left a lasting impression on her son with her prophetic worldly words: "You’re to let this place be your learning tree. Trees bear good fruit and bad fruit, and that’s the way it is here. Remember that."
Although Gordon Park didn’t have ‘professional’ training, his striking work led him to win the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942.
Parks’ prestigious fellowship work led to a “position with the photography section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., and, later, the Office of War Information (OWI).” – The Gordon Parks Foundation
By the mid 1940s, Parks worked as a freelance photographer for Glamour and Ebony, where he expanded his ‘photographic practice’, nurtured his process, and honed in on his ‘distinct’ style.
Gordon Parks’ documentary work included images of Harlem, including the world renowned “Harlem Gang Essay”, the 1960’s civil rights movement, the Black Panthers organization, the Ingrid Bergman-Roberto Rossellini love affair and much more.
"NO DOUBT IT WAS WISDOM THAT TAUGHT ME THAT MY MOST DANGEROUS ENEMY COULD BE MYSELF. I HAVE KNOWN BOTH MISERY AND HAPPINESS, I HAVE LIVED IN SO MANY DIFFERENT SKINS IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR ONE SKIN TO CLAIM ME."
Parks also photographed fashion for Vogue, where he pioneered a technique of shooting models in motion rather than in still poses. – I-D Magazine/VICE
"I HAVE FELT LIKE A WAYFARER ON AN ALIEN PLANET AT TIMES—WALKING, RUNNING, WONDERING ABOUT WHAT BROUGHT ME TO THIS PARTICULAR PLACE, AND WHY. BUT ONCE I WAS HERE THE DREAMS STARTING MOVING IN, AND I WENT ABOUT DEVOURING THEM AS THEY DEVOURED ME."
Encouraged by acclaimed film director and friend, John Cassavettes, Gordon Parks wrote, directed, and scored the first major Hollywood film to be directed by a black American, The Learning Tree (1969) based on his semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. – The Gordon Parks Foundation
Gordon Parks published a total of 12 books, including three autobiographies. His first book was published in 1947. It was an instruction manual entitled Flash Photography. During the 1970s, Parks used a combination of photographs and poetry for his next series of books. -- International Photography Hall of Fame
As a self-taught photographer, Gordon Parks had learned by looking at the great photographers of the day and visiting museums to study art by the masters ... He had a natural talent -- and although many times he was still hit hard with cold reality of bigotry and forced to enter through the back door or sit at the back of the bus.... -- International Photography Hall of Fame
In addition to his photographic work, Parks continued pursuing his storied music career. He composed film scores, orchestral music, and in 1990, composed the music and libretto for Martin – a ballet honoring the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Following the Learning Tree, Gordon Parks' next film, Shaft (1971) “was a critical and box-office success, inspiring a number of sequels. Parks published many books, including memoirs, novels, poetry, and volumes on photographic technique.” – The Gordon Parks Foundation
Today, The Gordon Parks Foundation “permanently preserves the work of Gordon Parks, makes it available to the public through exhibitions, books, and electronic media and supports artistic and educational activities that advance what Gordon described as 'the common search for a better life and a better world.'" – The Gordon Parks Foundation
Gordon Parks’ work is continuing to have a great impact on young people — and particularly on artists like Kendrick [Lamar] who use the power of imagery to examine issues related to social justice and race in our country,” remarked The Gordon Parks Foundation. – I-D Magazine/VICE