Gordon Parks: A Luminous Journey


“I was born dead”, recounts Gordon Parks in “Half Past Autumn”, a 2000 documentary about his life and career from HBO. He wasn’t kidding. The doctor and his sisters had to race to revive him, doing the trick by ice shock! His beginning was almost and end, and this theme stayed with him throughout his career as he pushed through one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after another on his way to “legendary”.

The Invisible Man – New York, 1952
The Invisible Man’s Retreat

In an era where the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” is as cliché as “my two cents” (which is more than I’m getting paid for this seminal masterpiece) Gordon Parks used his camera to pen entire novels, composing narratives that spanned the complexities of the human condition. Sounds heavy. It was. Key to gaining that weight was Parks’ knack for finding the dramatic unseen in the dusky corridors of photojournalism. He went places no one else at the time dared to.

His journey from a self-taught photographer to a visionary who illuminated the pages of Vogue and the gritty streets of Harlem alike, stands as a testament to his ability to capture moments of truth and beauty alike. From depictions of poverty and civil rights issues to the intimate portraits of Muhammad Ali, to those glossy fashion pages Parks’ famous photos did not just document history; they challenged perceptions, daring his audience to look beyond the surface. The significance of his work, celebrated through exhibitions and the lasting legacy of his documentary and photo essays, firmly places him among the pantheon of photographers who mastered the art of telling stories through the lens. If we don’t tell stories, even in a lone frame, whatever we shoot will lack any meaning beyond the surface.

Growing Up During Segregation

After having been born dead and brought to life in 1912 Fort Scott, Kansas, Gordon Parks became the youngest of 15 children in a family grappling with poverty and the harsh realities of segregation. Not to mention the harsh realities of having 14 older siblings! The racial discrimination and inequality he witnessed during his youth had great impact on him, which he later expressed through his work. Despite these challenges, Parks found solace and a sense of identity through the tight-knit community around him. Being the youngest of 15 had its advantages as well.

Parks faced significant obstacles in his education due to the segregated school system. His formal schooling was limited, and he eventually moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, after the death of his mother in 1928. Here, he encountered further hardships; an argument with his brother-in-law landlord left him homeless during a harsh winter. To survive, Parks took on various jobs, from playing piano in a brothel to washing dishes in a restaurant. His relentless spirit saw him through these trying times, his self-admonitions in before the mirror kept him focused, and all the while this was laying the groundwork for his future successes. Nothing brings more success than relentlessness. Combined with insight and some natural talent, there is no substitute.

Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956

Path to Photography

Parks: “One morning, with shaving razor in hand, I had stared into the mirror and asked myself some rather bothersome questions. With hard eyes I stared back at myself and reeled off some disturbing facts, along with some advice: ‘You’re approaching manhood and you dislike yourself. That’s why you’re interrogating me. Well, make up your mind and do something about it.’ You’re so thin-skinned that the softest criticism rubs you raw. Accept criticism, man. It can’t hurt, and it could be helpful. Envy of others’ success hands around your neck like a rope. That’s stupid. Use their success to give you inspiration. You squander too much time on trivial things, always hurrying to nowhere, and in a rush to get there. Take your time, man. Think things out first, then go. You avoid questions about yourself that you find hard to answer. Figure things out. You just don’t have the right answers, so admit it. You talk rapid-fire just to be heard, and without having anything worthwhile to say. That’s downright ego. Listen more. Keep your big mouth shut and keep your ears open. Your insecurity’s showing. Well, enough for now. There’s plenty left on the list for tomorrow. One last thing: Until you’re sure of yourself, you won’t be sure of anything. Think it over. See you tomorrow morning.”

That was not the only straight talk Parks did with his mirror. He kept it going as a way to clear his head and bring a sense of sanity to an insane world. They kept him on track on driving forward, no matter the circumstances. We should all have such a mirror.

Accidental Inspiration

Gordon Parks’ luminous journey into the world of photography began by happenstance in 1937 while working as a waiter on the North Coast Limited passenger train. It was there that he first saw depression-era photographs in magazines left behind by passengers. He was struck by images like Dorothea Lange’s portrayal of migrant workers, as well as the work of Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, and Walker Evens. In these images Parks saw reflections of his own struggles, and was soon moved to purchase his first camera and give it a crack. Why not? This pivotal decision marked the beginning of his lifelong passion, to pursue the power of great picture. It was also during this time of inspiration that he married his wife, Sally, and started a family.

Parks: “Still suffering the cruelties of my past, I wanted a voice to help me escape it. In 1938 a camera I bought for $7.50 would become that voice.”

Development of Personal Style

After acquiring his camera, Parks was largely self-taught, experimenting and learning through trial and error. His early work included capturing the elegance of Chicago socialite Marva Louis and the spiritual depth of churchgoers in Washington, D.C. By the early 1940s, he had secured a fellowship with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., where he honed a personal style that would later make him one of the most celebrated photographers of his era. His images from this period not only broke the color line in professional photography but also poignantly explored the social and economic impacts of poverty, racism, and discrimination. Parks himself noted the camera’s potential as a “weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs,” a philosophy that would define his career.

Significant Photographic Work

The career of Parks reached a major milestone when he got a gig at Life Magazine in 1948. Life at the time was the golden age for photojournalism, and a powerful medium to influence public opinion and with rare luck, help bring about societal change. Here Parks became one of the first African American photographers to gain national recognition. He produced some of the most poignant visual narratives of the 20th century, iconic images and photo essays that captured the essence of American life and its complexities. His ability to convey deep, narrative stories through his lens was extraordinary.

Photo Essays

One of his most impactful essays was “Harlem Gang Leader”, photographed in 1948. Here he documents Red Jackson and in the process gives a nuanced view to gang life in Harlem. This piece not only humanized gang members but also highlighted the socio-economic conditions that led to gang life. Another important essay, “A Harlem Family”, shot in 1968, portrayed the Fontenelle family’s daily struggle against poverty and racism. This essay sparked a nationwide discussion on urban poverty and racial discrimination. Parks’ work remains a crucial part of American historical documentation which continues to inspire photographers around the world.

The Fontanelles, New York, 1967
The Fontanelles, New York, 1967
Life, 1968

Other Creative Endeavors – Writing, Film and Music

As if all this were not enough, Park also became a groundbreaking filmmaker, musician, and writer. Like his photography, his writing included a variety of expressions, from novels to poetry to essays to film scripts to musical compositions. His first major novel was “The Learning Tree,” a semi-autobiographical coming of age story that he later adapted into a Hollywood film. His notable essays included “A Choice of Weapons” and “Voices in the Mirror,” reflecting his personal and social concerns. Parks’ unique ability to weave narrative with the visual is seen in “A Poet and His Camera,” where his photographs accompany his verse, an early intermedia creation.

Transitioning seamlessly from photography to film-making, Parks made history “The Learning Tree,” in 1969, becoming the first African American to write and direct a major Hollywood studio feature. His landmark film “Shaft” (1971) not only achieved box office success but also significantly influenced the genre of blaxploitation films, adding a new dimension to the portrayal of African Americans in cinema as the cool hero. (“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”, directed by Melvin Van Peebles, was released earlier that year and is considered the first of the genre). Both on and beyond the silver screen, Parks was an accomplished composer, having written scores for several of his films, including “The Learning Tree” and “Shaft’s Big Score”. His musical talents were also showcased in ballet, when he produced, directed, and composed the music for “Martin,” a ballet dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.. Too much talent in one body. Not fair!

Muhammad Ali, London, 1966


Traversing the grit and glories of Gordon Parks’ career brings us from the hard realities faced during segregation to the upper echelons of a varied artistic mastery, notably accentuated through his lens – both in stills and and motion picture. Parks’ savvy to weave the fabric of American life into a visual narrative not only marked him as an historian of his day, but also as a cultural provocateur, poking and jabbing at wrongs he wanted righted. His journey from born dead to the raw emotions of the streets to the polished corridors of Vogue, showcases his remarkable versatility and unyielding drive to document ugly truths and luminous beauties both separate and one within the other. This is shown not only through his famous photos which created conduits for reflection and change, but in his more obscure image making a well. His sense of the irreverent runs throughout his blaxsploitation films of the 70’s, which we love here at The Irreverent Photog Blog.

American Gothic, 1942

To learn a lot more about Parks and get deeper into his life and career, often from his own lips, check out the marvelous HBO documentary, “Half Past Autumn”. Then have a gander at HBO’s second Parks doc, made fifteen years after Parks’ death in 2006. This film focuses on the power and inspiration of the trails he helped blaze for black filmmakers and photographers. Have a look at the trailer for “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks”.

Our sincere thanks and appreciation to The Gordon Parks Foundation. Check out the archive!

Plenty of more fine films on photography and photographers can be found right here on Luminous!


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