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Gordon Parks Remembered

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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.

Gordon Parks, FSA/OWI photographer. 1943. Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

One of Parks’ most famous and enduring photos is of Ella Watson, government charwoman.1942. Prints and Photographs Division.

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.”

Comments (5)

  1. Erin, many thanks for this blog post! My mother adores Gordan Parks, so I shared this post with her. He was definitely a very fascinating man; very talented.

  2. Yes, Ms. Allen, I agree with the above commenter, Liah, as well. Thank you so much for your post on such a remarkable, amazing, talented and generous man. Gordon Parks is a role model in so many ways it could be easy to lose tracks of them all! He was such an amazing person and artist alike. It’s wonderful to know how he felt about his collection and donation the the LOC. Thanks for sharing with us!

  3. Hi.
    I’m wondering if someone could help me please?

    I’m studying at Sheffield Hallam University doing a Photography Degree. I am currently working on ideas for my History & Debates essay and very keen to focus my thoughts on Gordon’s American Gothic (Ella Watson). I want to also use his series or body of work on Ella Watson that he took while shadowing her for a short time too but I’m finding it very hard to source any written documentation regarding this project that he undertook. Could anyone please direct me to any relatable literature please? Books, web based resources? Anything really?
    Many thanks.

    • Thanks Charlie. Email the Library’s Ask a Librarian reference service, One of our reference librarians can help you with your research question.

  4. Wichita State University (in Wichita, largest city in Parks’ home state, Kansas) — particularly the Special Collections section of its Ablah Library, and its Ulrich Museum of Art — are home to many additional original papers, photos and artifacts provided by Gordon Parks before his death.

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