Friday, July 22, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks, "You recently wrote the introduction to THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF GORDON PARKS, a book published by The Library of Congress.  How were you selected for this project? What was your opinion of Parks before you wrote your short essay?  Did it change as you learned more about his career?  Do you feel his work as a photographer overshadows his other contributions to African American culture? One notices on the cover of THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF GORDON PARKS, a picture of a black woman in Harlem looking out a window with her dog. Did you select this photo for the book because of your love for dogs?

Success is filled with the agony of how and why---in the flesh, nerves and conscience. It takes you down a lonely road and you feel at times, that you are traveling it alone. You can only keep walking. Gordon Parks, Voices in the Mirror.

 All my life, I've admired and been inspired by Gordon Parks.  As is the case with James Weldon Johnson, when we read about Parks’s life, it feels as if we are looking at the robust biography of four men, or perhaps five. Both men gave new meaning to the term "Renaissance Man." Although he never finished high school and had a rough-and-tumble youth, during his relentlessly prolific ninety-four year passage among us, Gordon Parks received forty honorary doctorates and awards, among them the National Medal of Arts, Spingarn Medal, the NAACP Image Award, and the PGA Oscar Micheaux Award. 

He was a writer, musician, poet, composer, photojournalist, and a motion picture director. As a black American in the era of racial segregation, he was distinguished by a number of significant “firsts”: the first black fashion photographer for Vogue, the first black, staff photographer for Life magazine, and the first black director in Hollywood, one who opened the door for younger directors like Spike Lee and John Singleton. His films The Learning Tree, based on his autobiographical novel, and Shaft, are preserved in the United States National Film Registry. Furthermore, he served as the first editorial director for Essence magazine, and made respected contributions to the fields of ballet and opera, as well as technical books on photography.  Today, schools across the nation are named after him, and the Library of Congress preserves his papers and artistic collection. In a word, Gordon Parks realized the dream of every artist: namely, to see his work and its influence become inescapable in the culture.

The key for unlocking the logic, vision, and specific challenges of this remarkable life that documented American history even as he participated in its making can be found in Parks’s inspiring autobiography, Voices in the Mirror, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Times Book Review on November 4, 1990. There, we encounter not only a person of color’s dramatic journey across the  twentieth century landscape of this country, from youthful dreams to artistic triumph, but also a digest of black American themes for survival, and an algorithm for achieving professional excellence in a hostile world. 

 When W. Ralph Eubanks, Director of Publishing at the Library of Congress, asked me to write the introduction for The Photographs of Gordon Parks for their Fields of Vision series that honors great photographers, I decided the first thing I should do is re-read Voices in the Mirror. Once again, I was powerfully impressed by all that he had to overcome as a young man before he bought his first camera for $7.50 in a Seattle pawnshop. He was washed by all waters. Living on his own by age 15, Parks worked as a bus boy and a waiter on trains; he played blues as a self-taught musician in bawdy houses, cleaned the filthiest flophouses in Chicago, “washed a million dishes every weekend,” traveled as a singer for white orchestra leader Larry Funk, played basketball as a semi-professional, and was in the Civil Conservation Corps in 1933. During those years, he says he felt like he was “serving out a sentence in hell.”

 But his parents in Fort Scott, Kansas (he calls them his “heroes”) had given Parks such a strong moral foundation (his mother urged him to reach for “a nobler kind of success” than fame and fortune) that he was always “on a search for pride.” Furthermore, he believed that “nothing is more noble than a good try.” He learned from every experience that came his way (and there were so many!), read the great works of literature voraciously, and whenever possible studied the works of the best artists and photographers. A Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for his photos of impoverished areas of Chicago earned him a place on the staff of the Farm Security Administration, and from that moment forward his life consisted of one bold and memorable achievement after another across several artistic disciplines.

This new, gorgeous book from the Library of Congress presents the work Gordon Parks did during his time with the FSA. I love the cover photo of the black woman and a dog looking out a window, but I simply wrote the book's introduction and had no say-so over the selection of photographs.

If E-Channel readers want to treat themselves, or give to a friend a book of stunning images that capture the American experience in the 1930s and '40s, I highly recommend The Photographs of Gordon Parks.

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