Gordon Parks once called his camera a “weapon against poverty and racism.” His poignant photographs documented all walks of life, from the poor and impoverished of Chicago, to the gangs of Harlem, to the fashions of Paris.
Today would have been his 100th birthday. Parks was born on Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas. He died of cancer at the age of 94 on March 7, 2006. Over the course of his professional life, he produced substantive photography for the likes of the Farm Security Administration, Life Magazine and Vogue, wrote books and poetry, composed music and directed movies, two of which – “The Learning Tree” (1969), based on his autobiographical novel, and “Shaft” (1971) – will be preserved for all time as part of the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Not bad for a teenager who was kicked out of his home at age 15 and forced to live by his wits. He worked in brothels, as a singer, a semi-professional basketball player and as a traveling waiter, among other things, all to survive – and to learn.
The photographs he produced for the FSA under the direction of Roy Stryker (1942-1943) and later for the Office of War Information, also under Stryker’s direction (1943-1945), were his first major projects. His images can be found in the Library’s FSA/OWI Black-and-White Negatives collection.
The Gordon Parks volume of the Library’s “Fields of Vision” book series featuring images from the FSA collection is one of the most popular.
In 1995, the Library acquired his personal collection, including papers, music, photographs, films, recordings, drawings and other products of his long and creative career.
“I wanted all of my work to be under one roof, and I know of no roof I respect more,” he had said when making the donation.
Maricia Battle of the Prints and Photographs Division had the privilege of working with Parks on several occasions while helping to process his collection.
His body of work made him seem “larger than life,” she said. “But he was a real person. He made everyone feel like they belonged.”
Battle said it was vital to Parks to have his work freely available to everyone.
“He understood how important it was not to be housed in a box that no one would see,” she said. “And it’s important that young people and students have an idea that a man with simple beginnings achieved so much. It’s something anyone can do.”