The lion’s den | Gordon Parks offers perspective through a single lens


These are the words of Gordon Parks, widely regarded as one of the most remarkable photographers of his generation. A recent HBO Max documentary titled “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks” examines the life of this movie giant and his influence on the worlds of film, music, literature and photography. As an African-American photographer, Parks was uniquely qualified to chronicle the American experience through the prism of race, poverty and city life.

Born in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kan., Parks was a self-taught photographer whose early work began with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Later, the Office of War Information (OWI) set him on the path of chronicling America’s social conditions. While working at the FSA, Parks photographed and documented black life in Washington DC. He met and photographed Ella Watson, a government housekeeper, in the photograph “American Gothic”, Washington, DC (1942).

Photographer Gordon Parks was working for the Farm Security Administration in Washington, DC, in 1942 when he met Ella Watson. He photographed Watson, who was a government housekeeper at the time, for his iconic “American Gothic” photo. (COURTESY OF AMON CARTER AMERICAN ART MUSEUM)

According to Parks, “I had experienced a kind of fanaticism and discrimination here that I never imagined I would experience. … At first I asked [Ella Watson] about his life, how it was, and [it was] so disastrous that I felt I had to photograph this woman in a way that would make me or the public feel what Washington, DC was like in 1942. So I put her in front of the American flag with a broom in it. one hand and one mop in another. And I said, “American Gothic,” that’s how I was feeling right now. ”

The photo would become one of his most iconic and provide a commentary on the dual America and the contrasting lives of blacks and whites in America. Another of his famous photos is titled “Emerging Man” (1952), which is part of a photographic essay project for Life Magazine, titled “A Man Becomes Invisible”. The image was inspired by Ralph Ellison’s flagship novel, “Invisible Man”. The photo is an imagination of how the book’s protagonist would fit in 1952 in Harlem.

While at the OWI, one of Park’s first assignments was the 332 Fighter Group, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The first hunting party of its kind made up entirely of African-American men.

Parks was also known for capturing images of many of the most famous people of his time, including Muhamad Ali, Duke Ellington, and Malcolm X.

Although known for his photography, Parks was also a filmmaker and author, having directed the semi-autobiographical maturity film, “The Learning Tree” (1969), based on the Parks-written novel of the same name, and the feature film the film “Shaft” (1971), which is widely regarded as the most famous of the so-called Blaxploitation cinematic genre. Other films made by Parks include “Diary of a Harlem Family” (1968), which documents the dehumanizing aspects of poverty, and “Martin: A Ballet” (1989) about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

In terms of Park’s influence on American history and African American culture, his influence cannot be understated. Just as black newspapers had served to tell stories and provide counter-narratives of the experience of blacks in America after slavery and during the Jim Crow era, the work of Gordon Parks also helped dispel the myths and shed light on the often overlooked, misunderstood and invisible lives of those who are forgotten. Parks has influenced countless photographers, including Moneta Sleet Jr., who won a Pulitzer Prize for her photograph of Coretta Scott King and her young daughter and the funeral of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. This photograph and the work of all a life of Gordon Parks amplifies the words of Fred R. Bernard who once said: “A picture is worth a thousand words. “

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