This week’s artist is Gordon Parks. I first viewed Parks’ work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art‘s retrospective exhibition Half Past Autumn way back in 1997. Can you believe that was almost 17 years ago?
Parks (1912-2006) was a photographer, filmmaker, composer, novelist, poet, and civil rights activist. He was also the first African American to work for LIFE magazine as well as the first to write, direct, and score a Hollywood film (1969’s The Learning Tree, adapted from his autobiographical novel of the same name). Two years later, he also directed a film you might have heard of: Shaft.
None of the above facts reveals the dichotomy Parks worked across for most of his photographic career, regularly moving between fashion portraits and documenting poverty. My personal favorite of Parks’ photographs is a portrait he took of Ingrid Bergman in 1949, during her exile from Hollywood:
Just these first two images give you some idea of the gamut his work ranges.
Parks started his career taking portraits of society women in Chicago while simultaneously documenting Chicago’s South Side ghetto. It was the latter that won him an FSA fellowship, during which time he shot American Gothic (above) and other images of Ella Watson and her family:
Following disbandment of the FSA, Parks returned to fashion—as a freelance photographer for Vogue—and worked on projects for Standard Oil, for whom he shot the following:
As The New Yorker reported last year, “On November 1, 1948, LIFE magazine published the photo essay “Harlem Gang Leader,” introducing their readers to the photography of Gordon Parks and to his subject, the seventeen-year-old Leonard (Red) Jackson, leader of the Harlem gang the Midtowners.” It was this assignment that led to Parks becoming the first African-American staff photographer for the nation’s largest photography publication, a position he held for 20 years.
In true Parks form, he also shot fashion, sports, and entertainment for LIFE:
For more of Parks’ work, visit The Gordon Parks Foundation website.
What do you think of Gordon Parks’ work? Is this the first time you’ve seen it? How well do you think he balanced his career between fashion photography and photojournalism?