Gordon Parks view of Black History and Culture

In a particular field of art, the growth of an upcoming art or artist is determined by previously related art or artists that recognized the thoughts of that art. For instance, technology among other things has greatly improved modern photography. But the way current photographers think, and act today has been greatly influenced by the artist of the old days. One of the artists who made a big history during his lifetime was Gordon Parks. He was a famous African American photographer, film director, musician, and writer. Not only was Gordon among the first Americans to enter the field photography, the fashions and film industries were also significantly affected by him as well as told stories of social injustice in America at the time through his work and his ideas. The aim of this essay is to explain Gordon Parks in a social, political and historical setting. The paper will focus more on photography through the eyes of Gordon Parks and determine the long-term meaning that his works had in history and photography.


Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansa on November 30th, 1912. Gordon gained an interest in photography while he was working in a railroad dining as a waiter (Gordon Parks Biography.Com 63). He came across collections of photographers and decided to major into photography. It was at the age of 25 that Parks saw the pictures of refugee workers and bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brilliant, for $7.50 in Seattle Washington at a counter shop and began teaching himself how to take photographs (Gordon Parks Biography.Com 43).

Parks took a fashion photography job with a Minnesota women clothing store. The first pictures made Marva Louis happy, wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. Marva advised Parks to move to a larger city where his talents would be valued, and therefore Parks moved with his wife Sally to Chicago in 1940 to begin a long career in photography. Moving to Chicago was a game changer for Gordon Parks because his photography exposed subjects beyond fashions and portraited photography. For example, he would later comment that he felt part of Chicago’s south side and therefore took pictures that told about the practices of African-America people in the city. Park’s work in the inner city won him the Julius Rosenwald Friendship which resulted in him joining the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1941 (Gordon Parks Biography.Com 64).

The FSA isolated in 1943 and Parks took photos for the War Information Office and Standard Oil Photography Plan while doing freelance photography for Vogue. Parks worked at Vogue for many years from 1944 before moving to Harlem to take more city photos while working in the Fashion business. In 1948, his hard work in fashion photography made him get a job with the country’s largest photography magazine, Life Magazine, where Parks improved his career for the next twenty years. Life after Life Magazine opened doors for careers in writing, filmmaking, film directing which he continued to contribute in until the 1980s and quietly after that (Gordon Parks Biography.Com 12). Parks entered the movie industry and brought a new idea of “Blaxploitation” through movies such as the “The Learning Tree and Shaft in 1969 and 1971” respectively (Gordon Parks Biography.Com 34).

Gordon Parks Photography

Some signs made one to start a profession path or a particular course of life, without which there is a little drive. In a description, Parks names two signposts when he remembers how his father advised him that “Your heart will tell your feet which roads to take,” and “There’ll be noticed 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 (Willis and Deborah 89).” The two lessons were the sentencing factors to Parks that he would undertake photography.


Parks first meetings 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 womanliness and desire and decided to change the industry with several ideas (Willis and Deborah 67). First, after Vogue employed Parks, he focused more on the movement of garments and the flow of models as opposed the outdated static representation of fashion. Secondly, Parks challenged the rules of photography such as group poses, objects, and streetscapes as ways of entertaining people to a particular style of living and instead focused on individuals as the final objects of developing a desire for a career, services, and other possessions.

Thirdly, Parks invented studied and subtle ways of photographing models with a keen eye on details and the surrounding. For example, he brought the idea of joining real scenes such as New York, Paris, Chicago, to form backdrops for models instead of plain color backdrops in shooting studios (Willis and Deborah 45). Fourthly, Parks approved 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 took the undercover moments with awareness and closeness to ignite the mind of the viewer and enable the viewer to associate with the moments when the pictures were taken (Willis and Deborah 67).

Fifthly, female fashion photography in the mind of Gordon Parks was all about irritating desire and romanticizing the body of a woman. Therefore, he built photography around the daily activities of women such as eating, walking, bathing, swimming, motioning joined with challenging 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 and Deborah 23).” The fashion photography style of Parks was intended since he linked beauty, stylishness, vanity and the attraction of beautifully dressed women.

Political Photography

Gordon Parks created one of his most notable 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 map on the background. Racial isolation in American restaurants and shops in the city inspire the photograph (Gordon Parks Foundation 23). Historians and present-day photojournalists refer to the photo as a moving portrait that accused America of selling racial inequality in the society. While Parks continued to take more photos with Ella Watson, the America Gothic gathered much political debate and affected more people than any other work by Parks.

Parks’ job in political photography did not stand after the dismissal of FSA because by then he was a common name. He took another job in Washington taking photographs of the 332nd fighter group that combined of only black soldiers. Parks did not follow the group when it went to war (Gordon Parks Foundation 64).

The third political task of Parks was with the Standard Oil Photography Project where he took pictures of industrial centers and small towns. Some of the important works of the time are Car Overloaded with Furniture on Highway (1945) and Grease Plant Worker, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1946) (Gordon Parks Foundation 45).

Social and Local Photography

Gordon Parks spent the best part of his life as a journalist and a film photographer. During his time at Life Magazine between 1940 and 1970, Parks produced photo essays that told the stories of social inequalities and poverty, thereby making him one of the most famous translators 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 wider aspects of social wrongs in works such as the following.

First, the “Harlem Gang Leader” of 1948 was Parks second job at Life Magazine. Parks spent 17 days taking photos of a gang leader, 17-year-old Red Jackson, and other Midtown’s group members. The aim of the plan was to suggest that the lives of teenage criminals could be turned around if the responsible agencies made the proper involvements (Willis and Deborah 76). When Parks gave the photos to LIFE editors for the final story, he was not happy because the editors did not do fairness to his photos as the story based more on the vice of gang violence and paid little attention to restoration (Mason and John 67). Gordon Parks would later insist the importance of a photographer being able to write a script to accompany the story told by the photographs.

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 explain the Muslim religion as shown by the media and in newspapers. The photo essay told the story of a religion that placed importance on tolerance, peace, faith, family, discipline and peaceful complaint as opposed to the described picture of a group of religious fans. Most of the photos in the group had Malcolm X speaking at events, and he would later guide Parks to the Muslim faith as a spokesman and a prayer leader (Mason and John 98).

Thirdly, the “Harlem Family” picture was debatably at the heart of Gordon Parks during his career at LIFE. The themes in the photos, the Fontelles, were overwhelmed with poverty and their dilemma was difficult to Parks. The photo took a family in despair; children clustered together under a blanket in hunger in an apartment while the father gazes 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 fight against your judgment, with the hope of getting a response from his intended white audience (Mason and John 67).” Parks got answers in letters, some of which appeared to blame the Fontelles for their unhappiness while some were understanding 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 because of people’s help, but disaster would follow them when the house caught fire killing the father and a child. While parks would feel in charge of the calamity, he said in interviews that he was proud to bring people together and help at least one family while using photography to start a discussion of national importance (Mason and John 78). 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, low-income families or a family in Harlem. The important thing is that photography passed the planned 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 Biography.com website. N.p., 2014. Web. 5 June 2017.

Willis, Deborah. “The Fashionable Mr. Parks”. The New York Times. N.p., 2012. Web. 5 June2017.

“American Gothic, Washington, D.C.” Gordon Parks Foundation. N.p., 2014. Web. 5 June2017.

Mason, John Edwin. “How Gordon Parks’ Photographs Implored White America To See BlackHumanity.” Time. N.p., 2016. Web. 5 June 2017.

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