chantal stone photography: the blog

March 11, 2006

The End Of An Era

Filed under: News — chantal @ 1:54 pm

March 7, 2006 is the day the world lost a great man. We lost a poet, a musician, a novelist, a composer, a film director, an activist and most notably, one of the 20th centuries most accomplished photographers.

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchannan Parks died at the age of 93.

Several articles have been written the past couple days about the life of this great man. And I could simply reiterate what has already been said, another obituary documenting a lifetime of great achievement.

I could write that he was the first African-American photographer for Life magazine from 1948-1972; that he specialized in the portrayal of black urban life, issues dealing with racism and poverty, and became a world-class photojournalist bringing light to the difficulties of minorities at home as well as abroad; and that he also was a co-founder of Essence magazine in 1970, where he held the position of editorial director for three years.

I could talk about his years working as a member of the Farm Security Administration, documenting the plight of depression-era farmers across the United States, through which he captured his most famous image titled “American Gothic”, a portrait of a black cleaning lady named Ella Watson, stoically posed in front of the American flag with a mop in one hand and a broom in the other. Mr. Parks said he wanted to capture the mood of social inequality he felt when he took the photograph in 1948.

I might be inclined to mention his semi-autobiographical first novel The Learning Tree, published in 1963, that later became the film that Parks also wrote, directed, produced, for which he composed the film score, and also literally filmed as the cinematographer. He also directed the popular films Shaft in 1971 and Shaft’s Big Score in 1972 (both of which were the beginning of the new film genre known as blaxploitation), along with other films including some made for TV movies.

I also, would have to point out the four other books of memoirs that he wrote, including A Hungry Heart: a Memoir, four volumes of poetry, a ballet concerto, and several orchestral scores. I might also be tempted to list the impressive portfolio of famous portraits Gordon Parks took over the years, including Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Gloria Vanderbilt, Ingrid Bergman, Barbara Streisand, and many others.

To continue the list of achievements, it would be a failure not to mention the fact that as someone who never finished high school, Mr. Parks received 40 honorary doctorates from colleges and universities across the United States and United Kingdom.

All of these things are great, and do merit mention when discussing this great man. But more importantly, what needs to be discussed is the influence Gordon Parks had on American life. He beat the odds when the all was stacked up against him. He chose his camera as, he said in his own words, his “weapon of choice”, to fight the battle of social injustice that he saw so prevalent in the world around him. In a 1999 interview he said, “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs.”

With persistence, perseverance, and grace, Gordon Parks was able to accomplish things many people only dreamed of doing. He broke down barriers with his camera, and showed many people, who would not have ordinarily seen, the tragedies caused by severe poverty and inequality. He helped to bring these issues into the forefront of American consciousness, in many ways laying the groundwork for the civil rights movement.

Gordon Parks once said “[t]he guy who takes a chance, who walks the line between the known and unknown, who is unafraid of failure, will succeed.”
Words that he lived by, Mr. Parks never saw failure as an option and with triumphant courage, he helped pave the way for African-American photographers and filmmakers for decades to come.

Mr. Gordon Parks is an American legend, an icon, and was a true renaissance man, although he would humbly joke that he couldn’t even spell the word renaissance. As an aspiring photographer I have always admired and felt a deep connection with the work of Mr. Parks. As a black woman, I feel honored and proud to have as one of my predecessors, such a profoundly talented and superbly influential man. One could only hope to make one ounce of the mark that he made on this world.

Married three times, he is survived by his three children: Toni Parks Parson, David Parks, and Leslie Parks Harding, along with five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His son, Gordon Parks, Jr. died in a plane crash in 1979.

Mr. Gordon Parks was a great artist, a great writer, a great African-American…..simply put, a true American Hero.

You will be missed, Mr. Parks.

This article originally appeared on Blogcritics.org on March 11, 2006.

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