Gordon Parks: Breaking All the Rules

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Breaking all the rules
Sunday, March 26, 2006


PHOTOGRAPHER Gordon Parks once explained the complications of his birth this way:

"I was born dead."

Gordon was his mother's 15th child. His survival as a newborn was miraculous.

The doctor gave him up for dead, but an assistant asked if he could try his hand at getting the child to breathe. The family collected all the ice they could find and surrounded the newborn with an ice bath. Voila! Instant life. Every day after that was a gift.

From his first breath Gordon Parks broke all the rules.

Born to a family of poor Kansas farmers pummeled by poverty even before the official start of the Depression, Parks found himself out on his own at 15 after his mother died. Then friction with his brother-in-law condemned him to wander the streets of St. Paul, Minn., sleeping on streetcars, cadging food, begging for odd jobs. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. The early hardship infused sensitivity into the photography projects his later reputation would be built on.

His natural gift for music and his tenacity gave him the means to survive rootless street life. The talent he developed pounding piano keys and creating music to woo by in a St. Paul bordello was later honed to a fine point in disciplined classical music compositions.

Gordon Parks was an original, a jack of all trades artistically and master of all. Throughout his whole life you see chapters opening and closing from his dramatic birth in Fort Scott, Kan., on Nov. 30, 1912, to his death March 7 in a well-appointed New York apartment and burial 10 days ago back in Kansas.

With a life like a film script in which the lead character faces one challenge after the other in a career full of dramatic conflict, the hero is a driven man, his adventures unfolding as he pursues his quest to document the human condition with art.

Ultimately Parks used photography to fuel his escape from mundane jobs cleaning a pool hall or serving food aboard transcontinental railway cars. He defied popular conventions about the kind of labor African-Americans were suited for. His journey through life was propelled by his sensibilities as an artist. Woven tightly with strong threads of creativity, the magic carpet that transported Parks from one adventurous phase of his life to the next was photography, art and filmmaking, original music, original poetry and original books.

The lover of beautiful things and beautiful images, which he demonstrated as a fashion photographer for Vogue magazine, was also a fighter eager to expose the ugly realities of poverty, violence and racial conflict in the underbelly of American society.

"For generations the problems of poverty have grown steadily worse," he wrote in his acclaimed autobiography, "Voices in the Mirror."

"I've felt it was my camera's responsibility to shed light on any condition that hinders human growth or warps the spirit of those trapped in the ruinous evils of poverty," he said. "It is not easy to do away with whether its victims are black or white."

Professional photographers are likely to be either fashion and studio photographers or photojournalists documenting daily real-life events.

Parks did both, moving seamlessly between the glamorous world of high fashion and the gritty world of crime, poverty and despair.

As a newborn he refused to die, as a teenager he refused to let despair take over his life, and as a young adult he refused to let his creative spirit be snuffed out by rejection.

"I always wanted a better life, so I always aspired to do something different," Parks said, explaining for an interviewer the restless energy that made him seek new artistic challenges.

Unlike most other still photographers, Parks wrote the essays Life published with his projects. He wrote and directed motion pictures, the autobiographical "The Learning Tree" being his first full-length feature. His second, "Shaft,"...
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