Men You Wish You Were: Gordon Parks

Every month Primer is recognizing a different individual for their accomplishments, cultural significance, and general awesomeness. Since February is Black History Month we decided to step up the honors recognizing a new subject once ever week. This week: Gordon Parks.

Gordon Parks photo“The subject matter is so much more important than the photographer.” -Gordon Parks

In 1937, a twenty-five-year-old Gordon Parks, a black man with no professional training or portfolio, convinced the wife of a fashion store owner in St. Paul that he could take photos for her husband’s business.  When asked, all Parks said was, “Because I know I can, that’s all.”  That was enough for Madeline Murphy and that was enough to launch the career of one of the most successful photographers of the 20th century.

Gordon Parks is best known for his career as a photographer for LIFE magazine.  The first African-American to be on LIFE’s staff, his timeless and award-winning photographs of poverty and social inequality from around the world gained as much attention for their social commentary as they did for their artistic merit.

In 1961, he even saved Flavio da Silva’s life when his photo essay of the sickly young Brazilian boy brought on a surge of donations and support.

Parks’ amazing work in photography and courageous activism alone would be enough to warrant recognition by Primer, but he didn’t stop there.

Seemingly almost on a whim one day, Parks decided to become a writer.  What he produced was The Learning Tree a semi-autobiographical bestseller.

Parks didn’t stop there either.  He would soon become Hollywood’s first African-American film director when he adapted The Learning Tree for the screen.  And in 1971, he secured a place in film history with Shaft, one of the defining films of the 70’s.

He also composed several pieces of original music, a ballet (also choreographed), wrote poetry, and was an accomplished painter.  In 1995, Gordon Parks’ artistic collection joined Shaft and The Learning Tree in being selected for preservation by the Library of Congress.

To learn more about Gordon Parks and his work visit these sites:

Kevin MacLean

Kevin H. MacLean currently resides in Brooklyn, NY where he enjoys people watching, writing, and dominating all comers in four-square. You can keep tabs on him at his blog