Famous Photographer Gordon Parks Dies at 93
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JEFFREY BROWN: Her name was Ella Watson. She was a cleaning lady at a government building in Washington in 1942, when a young photographer named Gordon Parks asked to take her picture. Parks described the scene to the NewsHour’s Phil Ponce in 1997.
GORDON PARKS: I had experienced a kind of bigotry and discrimination here that I never expected to experience. And I photographed her after everyone had left the building.
At first, I asked her about her life, what it was like. And it was so disastrous that I just felt that I must photograph this woman in a way that would make me feel or make the public feel about what Washington, D.C., was in 1942.
JEFFREY BROWN: Parks would call the picture “American Gothic,” a takeoff of the famous Grant Wood pastoral painting. It became perhaps his best-known photograph, and it signaled the beginning of a remarkable career in photography, film, music and letters that would last six more decades.
Gordon Parks was born in 1912, the 15th and last child of a Kansas dirt farmer, into a life of poverty and discrimination. His mother died when he was 15.
He picked up a camera at age 25 and began documenting the plight of the poor and underprivileged in America. By 1948, the largely self-taught Parks had become the first African-American staff photographer at “Life” magazine. He would remain there until 1972, gaining a national reputation.
His signature technique: to tell a larger story about society through one person, like his photos of Red Jackson, a gang leader in a violence-ridden section of Harlem, or his 1961 series on a young asthmatic Brazilian slum-dweller, Flavio DaSilva, who, despite his debilitating illness, worked to support his family.
These photos spurred a huge outpouring from “Life’s” readers, and Parks himself brought DaSilva to the U.S. for treatment. It was a characteristic act for Parks who saw himself as more than a photographer to his subjects.
GORDON PARKS: You have to stay with them; you have to be a part of them. And I have love for them, and it’s a lasting love.
JEFFREY BROWN: Parks was also a renowned portrait photographer, capturing leading cultural figures, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Ingrid Bergman, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali. And he took elegant fashion photographs that appeared in “Vogue” and elsewhere.
Moving beyond the world of photography, Parks made himself an artistic renaissance man, as a writer of memoirs, novels and poetry, as an accomplished composer, and as a filmmaker, where he became the first black director of a major motion picture.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: No matter if you go or stay, think of Cherokee Flats like that until the day you die, that it be a learning tree.
JEFFREY BROWN: 1969′s “The Learning Tree” was based on Parks’ book of the same name.
Two years later, Parks directed Richard Roundtree in the title role as the avenging detective “Shaft.” In all, he would make 10 films. In 1997, during a retrospective of his work titled “Half Past Autumn” at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, Parks reflected on his remarkable life.
GORDON PARKS: My life to me is like sort of a disjointed dream. I can’t explain it to you; things have happened to me that are incredible. It’s so disjointed.
But all I know is there was a constant effort, a constant feeling that I must not fail, and I still have that. And now I feel, at 85, I really feel that I’m just ready to start. There’s another horizon out there, one more horizon that you have to make for yourself and let other people discover it, and someone else will take it further on, you know?
You discover it; somebody else takes it on and on. But I do feel a little cheated right now that I’m just about ready to start and winter is entering. “Half Past Autumn” has arrived.
JEFFREY BROWN: Gordon Parks died yesterday in New York City. He was 93.