Artist of the Week: Gordon Parks

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:

Ingrid Bergman in Stromboli, Italy 1949 (c) The Gordon Parks Foundation

Ingrid Bergman in Stromboli, Italy 1949 (c) The Gordon Parks Foundation

However, his most famous photograph is probably a commentary on the painting American Gothic, which was shot for the Farm Security Administration:

American Gothic 1942 (c) The Gordon Parks Foundation

American Gothic 1942 (c) The Gordon Parks Foundation

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:

Gordon Parks FSA 1942

Farm Security Administration photo by Gordon Parks of Mrs. Ella Watson with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter. Washington, D.C. August 1942

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:

Gordon Parks - Dinner Time at Mr. Hercules Brown

Gordon Parks – Dinner Time at Mr. Hercules Brown’s Home, Somerville, Maine, 1944

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.

Gordon Parks "Harlem Gang Leader"

Gordon Parks for LIFE magazine – “Harlem Gang Leader”

In true Parks form, he also shot fashion, sports, and entertainment for LIFE:

Gordon Parks Furs

Gordon Parks – Furs for LIFE magazine

Gordon Parks Nursemaid

Gordon Parks – Nursemaid’s Kerchief by Lilly Dache, New York City, New York, 1952

Gordon Parks for LIFE

Gordon Parks – LIFE magazine

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?