Don't call Gordon Parks a Renaissance Man to his face. This incredibly talented American icon who's also a composer, poet, novelist, film director, and extraordinary documentary and fashion photographer, laughs at the comparison. "I haven't even learned how to spell Renaissance yet," he modestly jokes as he sits in his Manhattan apartment overlooking the East River. "There's really no genius attached to what I've done in my life," he further explains with more seriousness. All I've really done is try to survive, more than anything else. Studying my favorite writers, my favorite composers, whether it be Rachmaninoff or Duke Ellington, and whether it's Satie or Debussy. . .I never closed myself off from any possibility."
At 16, Parks found himself homeless and did everything he could do make money, from waiting tables to playing piano in a brothel to mopping floors. As Parks tells it, his first foray into photography came after he found a magazine left behind by a passenger on a train. A portfolio inside the magazine, documenting the terrible living conditions of migrant workers inspired Parks to buy his first camera, a Voightlander Brilliant, at a pawnshop in Seattle. "I bought what was to become my weapon against poverty and racism," he says.
And what a weapon it became. In 1941 Parks became the first photographer to receive a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation and chose to work with Roy Stryker at the photography section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a government agency set up to call attention to the plight of the needy during the Depression. It was at the FSA in Washington, D.C., where Parks took his first professional photograph and signature image: "American Gothic." Recalls Parks: "It happened in one of the government's most sacred strongholds. I set up my camera for my first professional photograph and asked Ella [Watson] to stand before the American flag hanging from floor to ceiling, placed the mop in her one hand, a broom in the other, then instructed her to look into the lens."
From that point on, Parks was destined to do great things and take great photographs. He worked tirelessly and singlemindedly, and from the Forties through the Seventies he covered the major themes of each decade for LIFE magazine: social injustice, overwhelming poverty in the U.S. as well as in Brazil and Portugal, gang violence, the civil rights movement, and segregation in the Deep South. Though Parks's awareness of race, racism and hatred is a constant thread found through much of his work, this theme was juxtaposed early on with his expanding talent as a fashion photographer for Vogue, where he covered the Paris shows for several years. "The camera is not meant to just show misery," Parks says. "You can show beauty with it; you can do a lot of things. You can show things you like about the universe, things you hate about the universe. It's capable of doing both." And so was Parks.
In portraiture he captured several of the leading figures of the day: boxing champ Muhammad Ali, writer Langston Hughes, jazz great Duke Ellington, actress Ingrid Bergman. . . . Never one to pigeonhole himself into one concentration, Parks eventually expanded into film and became a pioneer African-American film director. His first film, The Learning Tree was based on his autiobiographical novel of the same name and focused on his childhood in Kansas. In 1971 he directed the "blaxploitation" movie Shaft, which Parks says was an attempt to give black people a positive role model. In this case it came in the form of a strong, studly "black private dick," the likes of whom audiences had never encountered before. (Parks recently made a cameo appearance in director John Singleton's modern-day remake of the movie.)
In addition to venturing into the motion picture industry, Parks has delved into the written word, writing over 14 books, including Arias in Silence and Glimpses Toward Infinity, his most recent books on color photographs and poetry. A Star For Noon, coming out in September from Bulfinch Press, is Parks's book of nudes and will be accompanied by a CD of his own musical compositions. "After working so hard at showing the desolation and the poverty, I have a right to show something beautiful as well," Parks explains. "It's all there, and you've done only half the job if you don't do that." Gordon Parks certainly need not worry about only doing half the job.