Gordon Parks was a photographer and photojournalist who has become known as one of the greatest of all time. His work spanned over four decades and offered a candid and important glimpse into U.S. society during a period of great change. Before his rise to prominence, he snapped these amazing photos on the streets of Harlem, which would eventually become his home. Taken in 1943 when Parks was 31 years old, the shots capture everyday life in the prominently black South Side neighbourhood.
[All images courtesy GORDON PARKS/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS]
So who exactly was the man behind these beautiful images?
His Early Life
Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912. His dad was a farmer who grew things like corn, potatoes and tomatoes, and they also had some livestock such as ducks and pigs. He went to a segregated school, and was therefore not allowed to play sports or attend special school events with the white children. When he was 11 he was thrown into a river by three white boys who knew he couldn’t swim – thankfully he managed to get to safety by ducking underwater, out of their sight. His mother died when he was 14, and he was sent to live with relatives soon after. However, he was cast out onto the streets at just 15 years old and subsequently worked various jobs such as singer, bus boy, brothel worker and semi-pro basketball player.
Getting Started on Photography
After being inspired by photographs of migrant workers in a magazine, Parks, now 25 and working as a waiter, decided to pursue a career in photography. He bought his first camera from a pawn store and began working professionally — mainly as a glamour/portrait photographer. In the following years Parks worked freelance while also focusing more on street photography. While working as a trainee at the Farm Security Administration, Parks took his now-famous ‘American Gothic’ photo.
In 1948, 5 years after these shots of everyday life in Harlem were taken, Parks turned his attention to a young gang leader from the area, and the resulting photo essay won him a job at Life magazine. For the next 20 years Parks produced a noted body of work that included such diverse topics as civil rights, poverty, sports, fashion and Broadway. He also took portraits of stars including Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Barbara Streisand, becoming “one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States.”
Parks worked as a consultant in Hollywood during the 1950s, and later went on to become the industry’s first major black director with 1969’s The Learning Tree. He shot his best-known movie Shaft in 1971, as well as the sequel a year later.
Parks died of cancer in 2006 at the age of 93. He has left behind a legacy of being one of the most celebrated photographers ever, and an important figure in documenting the lives and struggles of African-American people throughout his photography career. The Gordon Parks Foundation was set up to preserve his works and make them accessible to all, and there is also a museum dedicated to him in his birth town of Fort Scott.