Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born on November 30, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas. He was the last child of Sarah (nee Ross) and Jackson Parks. His father was a hard-working farmer. He attended a segregated elementary school. At the time, blacks were not encouraged to further their education. Parks related in a documentary on his life that his teacher told him that his desire to go to college would be a waste of money. He had a rough childhood and when he was fourteen, his mother died. He was then sent to live with relatives. That, however, did not work out and he found himself out on the streets soon after.
In 1929, he briefly worked in a gentlemen's club, the Minnesota Club. And he later went to Chicago and worked at a flophouse. These two jobs allowed him to see many different kinds of people who would later influence his work. At the age of twenty-five, Parks was struck by photographs of migrant workers in a magazine and bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brillant, for $12.50 at a Seattle, Washington, pawnshop. The photography clerks who developed Parks' first roll of film, applauded his work and prompted him to seek a fashion assignment at a women's clothing store in St. Paul, Minnesota, that was owned by Frank Murphy. Those photographs caught the eye of Marva Louis, the elegant wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. She encouraged Parks to move to Chicago more permanently in 1940, where he began a portrait business and specialized in photographs of society women.
Over the next few years, he would find himself working freelance. Then he got his first big break with chronicling the black ghetto and exhibiting his photographs in 1941. For this, he received fellowship with the Farm Security Administration.
Working as a trainee under Roy Stryker, Parks created one of his best-known photographs, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., named after the iconic Grant Wood painting, American Gothic. The photograph shows a black woman, Ella Watson, who worked on the cleaning crew of the FSA building, standing stiffly in front of an American flag hanging on the wall, a broom in one hand and a mop in the background. Parks had been inspired to create the image after encountering racism repeatedly in restaurants and shops in the segregated capital city.
After the FSA disbanded, Parks remained in Washington, D.C. as a correspondent with the Office of War Information. Finally, disgusted with the prejudice he encountered, however, he resigned in 1944. Moving to Harlem, Parks became a freelance fashion photographer for Vogue. He later followed Stryker to the Standard Oil Photography Project in New Jersey, which assigned photographers to take pictures of small towns and industrial centers. He did photographic essays of these towns and people.
Parks renewed his search for photography jobs in the fashion world. Despite racist attitudes of the day, the Vogue editor, Alexander Liberman, hired him to shoot a collection of evening gowns. Parks photographed fashion for Vogue for the next few years and he developed the distinctive style of photographing his models in motion rather than poised. During this time, he published his first two books, Flash Photography (1947) and Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture (1948).
A 1948 photographic essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with Life Magazine. He was the first African American to do so for the magazine. For twenty years, Parks produced photographs on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway, poverty, and racial segregation, as well as portraits of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Barbara Streisand. He became "one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States."
His upbringing is superbly brought to paper with his autobiographical best-seller, The Learning Tree. (It was also made into a film later). It was Life photographer Carl Mydans who suggested he write about his rugged childhood years in Kansas.
Parks should not be forgotten though as one of the great photographers in Hollywood. In addition to the other people aforementioned, he photographed Ingrid Bergman and Marilyn Monroe among others. Those are the ones, of course, we will focus on here.
He says: "I accepted my success with Vogue and Life with peace," at the time he worked behind a photographer's camera. "Assignments to Hollywood during the years to follow proved to be the bulwark of my existence. While watching films unfold, I found myself directing without actually directing. Within bright and soft lights, I was subconsciously placing actors where I alone wanted to see them. 'Two lovers waltzed without moving. An elm tree took wings and flew away through a cyclone.' Each assignment provided new challenges."
Eventually, Parks would direct, write screenplays and even do the musical scores to films like his own, "The Learning Tree," "Shaft" and his son would also prove to be a director of films like "Superfly."
Parks was married and divorced three times. Parks married Sally Alvis in Minneapolis during 1933 and they divorced in 1961. He married Elizabeth Campbell in 1962 and they divorced in 1973. Parks first met Genevieve Young in 1962 when he began writing The Learning Tree. At that time, his publisher assigned her to be his editor. They became romantically involved at a time when they both were divorcing previous spouses, and married in 1973. They divorced in 1979. For many years, Parks was romantically involved with Gloria Vanderbilt, the railroad heiress and designer. Their relationship evolved into a deep friendship that endured throughout his lifetime.
Parks fathered four children: Gordon, Jr., David, Leslie, and Toni (Parks-Parsons). His oldest son Gordon Parks, Jr., whose talents resembled his father's, was killed in a plane crash in 1979 in Kenya, where he had gone to direct a film. Parks has five grandchildren: Alain, Gordon III, Sarah, Campbell, and Satchel. Malcolm X honored Parks when he asked him to be the godfather of his daughter, Qubilah Shabazz.
Gordon Parks received more than twenty honorary doctorates in his lifetime. He died of cancer at the age of 93 while living in Manhattan and is buried in his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas on March 7, 2006.
The man himself: