Death of A Renaissance Man

Fifteen years ago or more, I was hired to interview Gordon Parks in New York. A French TV company was doing a special show about Blaxploitation pics and Parks, so they told me, had directed the movie that started the whole craze, Shaft. But that, as it turned out, was only one of his many accolades. His Manhattan apartment was decorated with awards, plaques and photos such as you rarely see in any one place – but then Park was a rare man indeed. Take these two paragraphs from his New York Times obituary, which was published this Wednesday March 8…

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born on Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kan. He was the youngest of 15 children born to a tenant farmer, Andrew Jackson Parks, and the former Sarah Ross. Although mired in poverty and threatened by segregation and the violence it engendered, the family was bound by Sarah Parks’s strong conviction that dignity and hard work could overcome bigotry.

Young Gordon’s security ended when his mother died. He was sent to St. Paul, Minn., to live with the family of an older sister. But the arrangement lasted only a few weeks; during a quarrel, Mr. Parks’s brother-in-law threw him out of the house. Mr. Parks learned to survive on the streets, using his untutored musical gifts to find work as a piano player in a brothel and later as the singer for a big band. He attended high school in St. Paul but never graduated.

…And then look at what he achieved in life. Photographer, author, director, composer – Parks was less a jack of all trades than a master of everything artistic. He was also frighteningly prolific. He was in his late seventies already by the time I interviewed him and had, you would have thought, nothing left to prove – but I remember he was hard at work both on a music project and a book project, none of which stopped him from being a gracious and generous interviewee. I went home that day awestruck by what some people can make of their lives.

We were talking about Shaft for the TV cameras, but Parks is perhaps best known as the pre-eminent black photojournalist of the 20th Century, a man who brought images of racial disparity and urban poverty to the living rooms of white America; it’s no coincidence that the quarter-century he spent working for Life magazine bracketed the Civil Rights era. The Guardian newspaper currently has an online gallery featuring some of his best-known photos.

American Gothic, 1942 taken in the American capital Washington D.C., on a day when Parks had been refused service at a clothing store, a movie theater and a restaurant.

Gordon Parks died this week, aged 93.

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November 2021