African American Culture and History through powerful artworks

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The emergence of an artwork, an artist or an idea depends on the ideas that were first conceived earlier in time by the inventors. For instance, modern photography has developed enormously due to the improvement in technology among others. The artist of the past has shaped the way modern day photographers reason and behave. One of which is the prominent Gordon Parks, an African American photographer. He he changed the revolutionalised the film and fashion industry and told a lot of stories on the social injustice in America at that time through his work and his ideas. The objective of this essay is to explore Gordon Parks in a social, political and historical context. The paper will focus more on photography through the eyes of Gordon Parks and determine the lasting significance that his works had in history and photography.


Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansa on November 30th, 1912. Gordon developed an interest in photography while he was working in a railroad dining as a waiter (“Gordon Parks Biography.Com”). He encountered portfolios of photographers and decided to venture into photography. It was at the age of 25 that Parks saw the portraits of immigrant workers and bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brillant, for $7.50 in Seattle Washington at a pawn shop and began teaching himself how to take photographs (“Gordon Parks Biography.Com”).

Parks took a fashion photography job with a Minnesota women clothing store. The first pictures impressed Marva Louis, wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. Marva advised Parks to move to a larger city where his talents would be appreciated, and therefore Parks moved with his wife Sally to Chicago in 1940 to kickstart a long career in photography. Moving to Chicago was a game changer for Gordon Parks since his photography explored subjects beyond fashions and portrait photography. For example, he would later comment that he felt connected to Chicago’s south side and therefore took pictures that told about the experiences of African-America people in the city. Park’s work in the inner city won him the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship which resulted in him joining the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1941 (“Gordon Parks Biography.Com”).

The FSA disbanded in 1943 and Parks took photos for the War Information Office and Standard Oil Photography Project while doing freelance photography for Vogue. Parks worked at Vogue for several years from 1944 before moving to Harlem to take more city photos while working in the Fashion industry. In 1948, his hard work in fashion photography landed him a job with the country’s largest photography magazine, Life Magazine, where Parks advanced his career for the next twenty years. Life after Life Magazine opened doors for careers in writing, filmmaking, film directing which he continued to participate in until the 1980s and quietly after that (“Gordon Parks Biography.Com”). Parks entered the movie industry and brought a new of concept of “Blaxploitation” through movies such as the The Learning Tree and Shaft in 1969 and 1971 respectively (“Gordon Parks Biography.Com”).

Gordon Parks Photography

Some signposts lead one to undertake a career path or a particular course of life, without which there is a little drive. In a memoir, Parks names two signposts when he recalls how his father counseled him that “Your heart will tell your feet which roads to take,” and “There’ll be signposts along the way giving out directions. You’ll have the right to question them, but don’t ignore them. Each one is meant for something.” The two lessons were the convicting factors to Parks that he would pursue photography (Willis).


Parks first encounters with photography were with Vogue magazine, and he used the photographs of the magazine to train himself how to shoot. Parks developed ideas that appearance, fashion, and design are what shaped femininity and desire and decided to revolutionalise the industry with several ideas. Firstly, after Vogue hired Parks, he concentrated more on the movement of garments and the flow of models as opposed the traditional static portrayal of fashion. Secondly, Parks challenged the rules of photography such as group poses, objects, and streetscapes as ways of alluring people to a particular style of living and instead focused on individuals as the ultimate objects of developing a desire in career, services and other commodities.

Thirdly, Parks devised dramatic and subtle ways of photographing models with a keen eye on details and the surrounding. For example, he brought the idea of incorporating real scenes such as New York, Paris, Chicago, to form backdrops for models instead of plain color backdrops in shooting studios (Willis). Fourthly, Parks adopted a freestyle of photography where he sometimes caught his subjects off guard and mid-action. For example, Parks would shoot models while they were moving on the streets. According to Willis, Parks captured the incognito moments with awareness and intimacy to ignite the mind of the viewer and enable the viewer to associate with the moments when the pictures were taken (Willis).

Fifthly, female fashion photography in the mind of Gordon Parks was all about provoking desire and idealizing the body of a woman. Therefore, he constructed photography around the daily activities of women such as eating, walking, bathing, swimming, lotioning coupled with provocative female poses. Finally, Parks developed sharp eyes for design through the lens of photography. For example, Parks wrote in “Voices in the Mirror” that “Chanel’s clothes are comfortable and easy to move in, and her suits are classics.” (Willis). The fashion photography style of Parks was intentional since he communicated beauty, elegance, vanity and the allure of beautifully dressed women.

Political Photography

Gordon Parks created one of his most memorable works, the American Gothic, Washington, D.C, while working for FSA. In the photo, a black woman, Ella Watson, who worked as a cleaner for the FSA building, is standing in front of the American flag hanging on a wall with a stiff pose. She holds a broom on the one hand and there is a mop on the background. Racial segregation in American restaurants and shops in the city inspire the photograph (Gordon Parks Foundation). Historians and contemporary photojournalists term the photo as a haunting portrait that indicted America for peddling racial imbalance in the society. While Parks continued to take more photos with Ella Watson, the America Gothic garnered much political debate and affected more people that any other work by Parks.

Parks’ career in political photography did not stall after the disbandment of FSA as by then he was a household name. He took another job in Washington taking photographs of the 332nd fighter group that comprised of only black soldiers. Parks did not follow the group when it went to war (Gordon Parks Foundation).

The third political assignment of Parks was with the Standard Oil Photography Project where he took pictures of industrial centers and small towns. Some of the monumental works of the time are Car Loaded with Furniture on Highway (1945) and Grease Plant Worker, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1946) (Gordon Parks Foundation).

Social and Civic Photography

Gordon Parks spent the best part of his life as a journalist and a documentary photographer. During his time at Life Magazine between 1940 and 1970, Parks produced photo essays that told the stories of social injustices and poverty, thereby making him one of the most significant interpreters of the American Society at that era. In interviews and memoirs, Parks said that he used his portraits as a mode of “visual justice” to touch the heart of society in the broader aspects of social injustices in works such as the following.

Firstly, the “Harlem Gang Leader” of 1948 was Parks second assignment at Life Magazine. Parks spent 17 days taking photos of a gang leader, 17-year-old Red Jackson, and other Midtown’s gang members. The aim of the project was to highlight that the lives of teenage delinquents could be turned around if the responsible agencies made the proper interventions. When Parks gave the photos to LIFE editors for the final story, he was dissatisfied because the editors did not do justice to his photos as the story focused more on the vice of gang violence and paid little attention to rehabilitation. Gordon Parks would later insist the importance of a photographer being able to write a script to accompany the story told by the photographs (Mason).

Secondly, Parks told the story of the Muslim community through the photo essay “The White Man’s Day Is Almost Over” in 1963. At the time, Parks was a star photography who had control over the stories behind his pictures. He used the photo essay to demystify the Muslim religion as portrayed by the media and in newspapers. The photo essay told the story of a religion that placed emphasis on tolerance, peace, faith, family, discipline and peaceful protest as opposed to the portrayed picture of a group of religious fanatics. Most of the photos in the collection had Malcolm X speaking at events, and he would later guide Parks to the Muslim faith as a spokesman and a prayer leader (Mason).

Thirdly, the “Harlem Family” portrait was arguably at the heart of Gordon Parks during his career at LIFE. The subjects in the photos, the Fontelles, were plagued with poverty and their plight tortured Parks. The photo captured a family in despair; children huddled together under a blanket in hunger in an apartment while the father stares into a void. Parks wrote the photo story in the magazine where he began with the words “Look at me. Listen to me. Try to understand my struggle against your racism.” with the hope of getting a response from his intended white audience (Mason). Parks got responses in letters, some of which blamed the Fontelles for their misery while some were sympathetic to the point of people asking how they could help the family get out of poverty. The family was able to move to better housing in Queens as a result of people’s contributions and but tragedy would follow them when the house caught fire killing the father and a child. While parks would feel responsible for the tragedy, he said in interviews that he was proud to bring people together and help at least one family while using photography to start a conversation of national importance (Mason). The letters about the Harlem Family to LIFE magazine are at Wichita State University at Gordon Parks Papers.


According to Gordon Parks, he saw no difference photographing fashion, celebrity parties, impoverished families or a family in Harlem. The important thing is that photography passed the intended message. Interested persons can find some of Gordon Parks’ work in Gordon Parks Foundation, the Library of Congress, National Archives, Washington D.C, National Film Registry and the Gordon Parks Museum.

Works cited

“Gordon Parks Biography.Com”. The website. N.p., 2014. Web. 1 June 2017.

Willis, Deborah. “The Fashionable Mr. Parks”. The New York Times. N.p., 2012. Web. 1 June2017.

“American Gothic, Washington, D.C”. Gordon Parks Foundation. N.p., 2014. Web. 1 June2017.

Mason, John Edwin. “How Gordon Parks’ Photographs Implored White America To See BlackHumanity”. Time. N.p., 2016. Web. 1 June 2017.

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