Run Time: 35:14
Gordon Parks talked about his father as his exhibition entitled Bare Witness opened at the Toledo Museum of Art. The youngest of fifteen children, Gordon Parks was born into the devout Methodist family of Sarah Ross Parks and Andrew Jackson Parks in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas. It was a town "electrified with racial tension," Parks remembered. The family was dirt-poor, but the children were taught to value honor, education, and equality, as well as the importance of telling the truth. The security that Parks derived from the quiet strength of his father and his mother's love was shattered when she died during his fifteenth year. As he recalled in Voices in the Mirror, he spent the night alone with her coffin, an experience he found both "terror-filled and strangely reassuring." Parks became interested in photography while working on the railroad. He took his first pictures in Seattle, Washington, in 1937, at the end of his "run" from St. Paul. As Parks recalled for The Black Photographers Annual, "I bought my first camera in a pawn shop there. It was a Voigtlander Brilliant and cost $12.50. With such a brand name, I could not resist." He took his first pictures on Seattle's waterfront, even falling off the pier as he photographed sea gulls in flight. Upon his return to the Midwest, he dropped his film off at Eastman Kodak in Minneapolis. "The man at Kodak told me the shots were very good and if I kept it up, they would give me an exhibition. Later, Kodak gave me my first exhibition," Parks recalled. Parks then later began writing for Life Magazine.He provided the readers of Life magazine with a unique view of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. As Phil Kunhardt, Jr., assistant managing editor of Life, recalled for Deedee Moore, "At first he made his name with fashion, but when he covered racial strife for us, there was no question that he was a black photographer with enormous connections and access to the black community and its leaders." It was Malcolm X's trust of Parks that allowed him to do a feature on the Black Muslim leader. Malcolm X wrote of Parks in his autobiography, "Success among whites never made Parks lose touch with black reality." Parks then went on to direct some highly commercial dramas, including Shaft (1971), Shaft's Big Score (1972) and The Super Cops (1974). As described by Donald Bogle in Blacks in American Films and Television, "Almost all his films [except The Super Cops] reveal his determination to deal with assertive, sexual black heroes, who struggle to maintain their manhood amid mounting social/political tensions.... In some respects, his films ... can generally be read as heady manhood initiation rituals." In 2002 the 90-year-old Parks was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in Oklahoma City and received the Jackie Robinson Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. Parks, who was 93, passed away at his home in New York City on March 7, 2006.