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Gordon Parks

A versatile and prolific artist, Gordon Parks, Sr., warrants his status as a cultural icon. The poet, novelist, film director, and preeminent documentary and fashion photographer was born on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of fifteen children. Parks saw no reason to stay in Kansas after the death of his mother and moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, at age sixteen to live with his sister. After a disagreement with his brother-in-law, Parks soon found himself homeless, supporting himself by playing piano and basketball and working as a busboy.

While working on a train as a waiter, Parks noticed a magazine with photographs from the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The photos by such documentary photographers as Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and Arthur Rothstein led him to Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices, other photo essays about poverty and racism, and the social and artistic voice he had been seeking. Parks bought a used camera in 1938, deciding on a career in photography. In 1941, Parks received a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation to work with Roy Stryker at the photography section of the FSA. In Washington, D.C., he trained as a photojournalist. He would work with Stryker for the next few years, producing work and honing the modernist and individualistic style he became known for by photographing small towns and industrial centers throughout America.

By the end of the 1940s, Parks was working with Life and Vogue and in that capacity did some of his most famous work. Traveling the globe and covering issues as varied as the fashion industry, poverty in Brazil, the Nation of Islam, gang violence, and eventually celebrity portraitures, Parks continued to develop and create new ways to convey meaning through his work.

Branching out from his photography in 1963, Parks directed his first film, The Learning Tree, based on his autobiographical novel of the same name. Parks went on to direct many films, including Shaft in 1971. In addition to film, Parks composed music and written several books including: A Choice of Weapons (1966), To Smile in Autumn (1979), Voices in the Mirror (1990), Arias of Silence (1994), and a retrospective of his life and work titled Half Past Autumn (1997), which was recently made into an HBO special.

Parks passed away on March 7, 2006 at the age of 93.

Accession Number

A2001.054

Sex

Male

Archival Photo 1
Interview Date

3/12/2001

Last Name

Parks

Organizations
Search Occupation Category
Archival Photo 2
First Name

Gordon

Birth City, State, Country

Fort Scott

HM ID

PAR02

Favorite Season

Fall

Sponsor

Mark D. Goodman

State

Kansas

Favorite Vacation Destination

Southern France, Vail, Colorado

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

11/30/1912

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Steak, Salad

Death Date

3/7/2006

Short Description

Fiction writer, film director, and photographer Gordon Parks (1912 - 2006 ) worked for Life and Vogue magazines, traveling around the world to photograph varied issues such as the fashion industry, poverty in Brazil, the Nation of Islam, gang violence, and eventually celebrity portraitures. Branching out from his photography in 1963, Parks directed his first film, 'The Learning Tree', based on his autobiographical novel of the same name. Parks went on to direct many films, including 'Shaft.' Parks has also composed music and written several books including 'A Choice of Weapons.'

Main Sponsor
Favorite Color

Blue, Green

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Gordon Parks' interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Gordon Parks's favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Gordon Parks explains how he wrote 'The Learning Tree'

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Gordon Parks describes his mother

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Gordon Parks describes his father

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Gordon Parks describes his childhood home

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Gordon Parks discusses his siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Gordon Parks shares memories of childhood games, musical instruments and death

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Gordon Parks discusses the racial relations of his childhood neighborhood

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Gordon Parks retells the trial story from 'The Learning Tree'

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Gordon Parks describes the racial interactions growing up

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Gordon Parks recalls his mother's death

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Gordon Parks moves to St. Paul, Minnesota

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Gordon Parks discusses confrontation with brother-in-law

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Gordon Parks's homelessness in St. Paul, Minnesota

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Gordon Parks plays with the House of David Basketball Team

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Gordon Parks discusses his friends and future wife

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Gordon Parks becomes a traveling musician

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Gordon Parks travels to Harlem, NY

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Gordon Parks discusses his piano inspirations and talent development

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Gordon Parks discusses his experience with gypsies

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Gordon Parks is inspired to purchase his first camera

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Gordon Parks plays the Harlem Globetrotters

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Gordon Parks discusses his first role of pictures

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Gordon Parks wins the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship and works with the Farm Security Administration

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Gordon Parks discusses his mentor, Roy Stryker

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Gordon Parks describes the camera as a weapon

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Gordon Parks discusses 'American Gothic' (1942)

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Gordon Parks begins career at 'Life' magazine

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Gordon Parks is assigned to 'Life' magazine's Paris office

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Gordon Parks describes a racial incident in Paris, France

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Gordon Parks creates a piano concerto

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Gordon Parks discusses the end of his marriage with Sally

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Gordon Parks discusses violence as a 'Life' photographer

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Gordon Parks discusses danger as a 'Life' Magazine Photographer

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Gordon Parks discusses the film, 'The Learning Tree'

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Gordon Parks discusses the film, 'Shaft'

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Gordon Parks discusses 'Half Past Autumn'

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Gordon Parks discusses what he wishes he'd done

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Gordon Parks discusses poetry in his art

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Gordon Parks reads from 'Half Past Autumn'

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Gordon Parks considers his Legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Poster -- Gordon Parks with the House of David Basketball Team (1930s)

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Poster -- Detail of Gordon Parks with the House of David Basketball Team (1930s)

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Photo -- Gordon Parks's Mother, Sarah Parks

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Photo -- Gordon Parks's Father, Andrew Jackson Parks (1939)

Tape: 5 Story: 11 - Photo -- Gordon Parks with Actress Dina Merrill

Tape: 5 Story: 12 - Photo -- Gordon Parks Receives 45th Honorary Doctorate from Princeton University (May 2000)

Tape: 5 Story: 13 - Photo -- Gordon Parks

Tape: 5 Story: 14 - Photo -- Gordon Parks's Third Wife, Gene

Tape: 5 Story: 15 - Photo -- Gordon Parks with David Dinkins

Tape: 5 Story: 16 - Photo -- Gordon Parks and Family Members

Tape: 5 Story: 17 - Photo -- Gordon Parks's Great-Grandson, Ramsey

Tape: 5 Story: 18 - Photo -- Gordon Parks with Muhammad Ali

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$4

DAStory

8$4

DATitle
Gordon Parks discusses 'American Gothic' (1942)
Gordon Parks creates a piano concerto
Transcript
What made you decide that composition? That's what's almost even amazing. You know, I mean, what made you would put the things like that with the flag in the background. Was that just, did you -- were you conscious of what -- you were somewhat conscious of what you were doing.$$Yeah. Having gone to the [South Side Community] Art Center in Chicago [Illinois], seeing some of the fine paintings and things for the first time in my life, I remember Grant Wood's 'American Gothic,' and I remember the guy with the pitchfork was standing with his wife in front of the barn and looking straight into the camera. That picture stuck with me for some reason or another, the simplicity of it and the artfulness of it. So when I came - when I had suffered the discrimination in Washington [District of Columbia] the first day I was there, I was refused in Garfinkel's Department Store. I was refused in a restaurant, refused in a theater, couldn't go in the white theater. I was angry, you know, seething, you know, and I went back, and [Roy] Stryker knew that, and he had sent me on the assignment. He knew it was gonna upset me, and he wanted to see how I would react to it, and I didn't know about Washington, D. C., in 1942 so he said, "Well, what'd you bring your camera down for?" when I told him. He asked me, "How did it go?" I said, "Well, you know how it went." He said, "Well, what did you bring your camera down here for?" I said, "Well, I don't know. What's that got to do with it?" He said, "You know, talk to some other black people down here, older people especially who've been through all their lives what you went through this afternoon and turn the camera against them. Now you just can't photograph a bigot and write 'bigot' underneath his photograph 'cause bigots have a way of looking like anybody else and sometimes even better." He said, "So you have to get at the roots of bigotry. Talk to some of the older people who've been through all their lives what you went through today," and he left and went home. And I was left in the office alone my first day there, 14th and Independence Avenue [Washington, D. C.]. The only person left was this woman sweeping the floor, a black woman and mopping. She looked like a black woman, and I asked her name, and she told me her name. And I said, "Well, can you tell me a little about your life?" And there had been a lynching in her life. Her daughter had died from childbirth, and she was now taking care of six kids, her kids on a salary that she couldn't hardly support herself on. So, I don't know. Somehow or another Grant Wood popped in my mind. I said, "Can I photograph you?" She said, "Yes." I said, "Where?" She said, "Where do you want me to stand?" I said, "Right in front of that American flag." And I said, "Have a broom in one hand and a mop in the other." And I said, "Now look straight into the camera," and she did, and I took the photograph. A few days later when Stryker saw it, he said, "Well, you got the right idea, but you're gonna get us all fired." (Laughter) I thought the photograph had been destroyed, but I was coming back from -- 'cause a lot of southern congressmen and senators didn't like that picture being in the files of the government. "It's an indictment," one guy said, "against America. It shouldn't be in the file." So I thought it had been tossed out. I got on a plane coming from D.C. -- California to New York, and right on the front page I see Ella Watson, you know from 'American Gothic,' and when I got off the plane here at LaGuardia [Airport, New York], instead of coming home here, I went straight down to Washington [District of Columbia], went to the Library of Congress which is where I found the picture was being kept, and had a negative made so it can never be destroyed. It's in this house right now.$And what would you say was most significant about -- did you learn a lot from the Paris [France] experience? Did it open up your - you learned from the FSA [Farm Security Administration]. Was there something you learned about that, from that Paris experience?$$When I went to Paris, I felt free as an artist for the first time, that I was not necessarily being taken as a black artist but just somebody who was pursuing achievements of some sort, you know. I went to the (unclear) each Sunday which is the house where the great symphony orchestras came, and I would listen to symphonies, ballets, and things of that sort, and learn all cultural aspects that had escaped me, more or less, back in Kansas and places of that sort. I was seeing it all for the first time, and it was a long way from Fort Scott, Kansas, to Paris. And a lot of things were happening with my children, meeting people, great writers and great artists. And I met [Marc] Chagall and other people like Pablo Neruda, the poet who I admire very much even today. I met him in Rome [Italy]. And I learned an awful lot there in a cultural way about how to do things. It almost was magical. My first piano concerto was formed there. I don't know why. I think because I went to a bullfight in Spain and saw a young matador die at the hands of this bull, and it stayed with me. I went back to Paris where I had kept a baby grand piano, started playing on it, and I don't know, just something from this bullfight and the death of this young bullfighter haunted me, you know. And so I started on my first piano concerto which I didn't know at the time it was gonna be a concerto. Dean Dixon, who was a black conductor, would come to Paris because he couldn't get enough work in the United States but he was very well-respected in Europe. He came to the house when I was playing and asked the maid not to disturb me, let me finish doing what I was doing. And after I finished he came in and said, "Ah," you know, "What was that?" And I was just kidding, I said, "Oh, that's my first piano concerto." He said, "Yeah, let me hear some more of it." And so I said, "I was just kidding. I was just noodling around." I said, "it's really from, inspired by a bullfight that I saw up in Madrid [Spain]." He said, "I like it." He said, "If you finish it, I'll perform it with an orchestra in Venice [Italy] in a year and a half. I'll be playing there." So I said, "Are you kidding?" He said, "No, no." He said, "We'll go get the tape machine, you tape it, and we'll send it back to Henry Brant. They can orchestrate it back in New York [New York], and we're gonna do it in Venice." And that's what happened. So I worked off and on for the next year, taping and bringing parts of the music together, and that's when I first realized I could do a piano concerto. But Dean said (unclear). I told him, I said, "You know I've had no training whatsoever in music." He said, "It doesn't make any difference." He said, "You're a good listener, and you must keep listening to your favorite composers, and even when you're talking to your maid or you're talking to your wife or you're angry with your children, keep listening to the good symphony music all the time, and keep it on in the house all the time." So that's what I did, and out of it came my first piano concerto, and I went to Venice to hear him when he performed it there at the Doge's Palace.