15 Essential Works by Photographer Gordon Parks, Who Chronicled African American Life

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To call Gordon Parks (1912–2006) a Renaissance man would be a massive understatement.

A photographer, filmmaker, writer, musician/composer, and painter, Parks enjoyed an extraordinary career that landed him everywhere from Hollywood to the front lines in the battle for Civil Rights.

Parks was a freelancer for Glamour and Ebony before becoming the first Black staff photographer at Life magazine, in 1948; later, he shot fashion spreads for Vogue. He was also the first African American to helm a major motion picture—1969’s semi-autobiographical The Learning Tree, which Parks adapted from his own novel of the same name, and for which he co-composed the musical score. His next directorial effort, the 1971 thriller Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree as the eponymous detective, was such a huge hit that it spawned the box-office genre known as “blaxploitation” while also producing an equally famous theme song by Isaac Hayes.

Still, out of all his accomplishments, Parks probably remains best known for producing some of the most powerful photographs of the 20th century. His interest in photography began early. Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, as a teenager, where, after buying his first camera and teaching himself the craft, he landed his first professional job shooting fashion for a department store.

In 1940 he moved to the South Side of Chicago, where he had a portrait studio at the South Side Community Art Center. Two years later, he went to work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which had begun chronicling the nation’s social conditions under the New Deal. Upon arriving in Washington, D.C., he described the city as “bulging” with racism. One of the images taken in response was of a cleaning lady in the FSA building, her pose taken from Grant Wood’s iconic painting, American Gothic.

Parks became particularly noted for capturing subjects from the sports, politics, and entertainment worlds, as well as from everyday life, while on assignment. But more important, he dedicated himself to social justice, noting that he considered the camera “a weapon against poverty [and] racism.”

Recently Howard University acquired a collection of 252 photographs from the Gordon Parks Foundation that cover the entire arc of his career. It focuses on the portraits for which he is rightly celebrated, as you’ll see from the indelible examples below.

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