You know Gordon Parks. Or, rather, you know his work. Maybe it's just that one photo of Muhammad Ali from 1970, with sweat dripping down his exhausted face, but you've seen a Gordon Parks photograph. Perhaps it's just because of a little 1971 flick by the name of, oh, Shaft, but you've probably experienced the wham-bam of Gordon Parks.
This true Renaissance man was born the youngest of 15 children in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1912. His family poverty-stricken and the victims of racism, Parks decided that exposing beauty was his primary goal and became an artist. At 25, he was inspired by the faces of dust bowl refugees in a social documentary for the Farm Security Administration and was later awarded a fellowship with FSA director Roy Stryker. There he discovered FSA cleaning woman Ella Watson, the subject of his iconic "American Gothic," which shows Watson with a broom and mop (instead of a pitchfork) in front of the American flag.
Actually, it's quite a rare thing to view one of Parks' photos and not find the term "iconic" cropping up in the mind...alongside emotional, familiar and powerful. After joining Life magazine in the 1940s, Parks began developing his style as he photographed a Harlem youth gang, fashion in Paris, segregation in the southern United States, the Black Muslims (providing his legendary "Malcolm X Addressing Black Muslim Rally") and more. By the late '60s, Parks had become known for his ability to get to know his subjects and convey their familiarity and emotion in his work. And yeah, there's more to see, to take in, than just that Ali shot, Malcolm X and the fashionable "Ingrid Bergman at Stromboli, Italy." Approximately 130 of these emotive photographs produced by Parks (from 1940 through 1997) will be featured as the Dallas Museum of Art presents Gordon Parks, Half Past Autumn.
His color images (he began experimenting with the spectrum in the late '50s) would later serve as illustrations in his books of poems. Yes, he's a poet, too...as well as a filmmaker, writer and musician/composer. Most people just say, "I want to be a filmmaker," or, "I'd like to become a poet someday." It seems the difference with Parks was that instead of pigeonholing his aspirations he just said, "I want to show people beauty," and went on to do so in every way he could find.
In 1969, Parks made the autobiographical film The Learning Tree and thus became "the first African-American filmmaker to write, direct and score a feature film in Hollywood." Add acting to the roster, because not only did Parks direct the original version of Shaft, but he also plays the role of Apartment Landlord. It's not a huge role, but as we write this and begin harboring even more resentment for our few accomplishments, it's yet another thing we haven't done.
As we said before, maybe the lack of Parks-like talent these days comes from too much definition. With any artistic success comes adversity, but young people today rarely get coaxed to try everything before settling on a hobby, a goal or a career. Parks may be nearing 100 years old, but he has an outlook that remains childlike and pure--even after experiencing such racism in his past, such poverty. He just wants people to see the beauty he can reveal to them.