Gordon Parks was one of the seminal figures of twentieth century photography. A humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice, he left behind a body of work that documents many of the most important aspects of American culture from the early 1940s up until his death in 2006, with a focus on race relations, poverty, civil rights, and urban life. In addition, Parks was also a celebrated composer, author, and filmmaker who interacted with many of the most prominent people of his era – from politicians and artists to celebrities and athletes.
When the F.S.A. closed in 1943, Parks became a freelance photographer, balancing work for fashion magazines with his passion for documenting humanitarian issues. His 1948 photo essay on the life of a Harlem gang leader won him widespread acclaim and a position as the first African American staff photographer and writer for Life Magazine, then by far the most prominent photojournalist publication in the world. Parks would remain at Life for two decades, chronicling subjects related to racism and poverty, as well as taking memorable pictures of celebrities and politicians (including Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael). His most famous images, such as Emerging Man (1952) and American Gothic (1942) capture the essence of activism and humanitarianism in mid-twentieth century America and have become iconic images, defining their era for later generations. They also rallied support for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, for which Parks himself was a tireless advocate as well as a documentarian.
In no time, invested with a brilliant flow of creativity, his eye for and execution of colorful ‘tags’ and ‘R.I.P’ scenes began to bring him considerable ‘street recognition’ and local acclaim. But what soon pleased him more was his mounting reputation as a “B” boy–break-dancing, popping and locking with such skill and control that he became a regular on the dance crew of R & B star Sybil. After a couple of years traveling with her, he joined the touring crew of The Sugar Hill Gang, appeared on “Show Time At The Apollo”, performed on the video “Rap Mania”, and with the dance company of the movie, “New Jack City”.
Parks spent much of the last three decades of his life expanding his style; he continued working up until his death in 2006, winning numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts in 1988, and over fifty honorary doctorates. He was also a noted composer and author, and in 1969, became the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film based on his bestselling novel The Learning Tree. This was followed in 1971 by the hugely successful motion picture Shaft. The core of his accomplishment, however, remains his photography the scope, quality, and enduring national significance of which is reflected throughout the collection at The Gordon Parks Foundation.