The Photographs of Gordon Parks (The Library of Congress, 2011)

The Library of Congress have published 50 of Gordon Parks’ photographs taken in 1942 and 1943 for FSA, the Farm Security Administration, in LOC’s Fields of Vision series, with an introduction by novelist Charles Johnson (Middle Passage, 1990, National Book Award for Fiction).

Gordon Parks (1912-2006) lived a long and productive life, documented in no less than four different autobiographies, A Choice of Weapons (1966), To Smile in Autumn (1979), Voices in the Mirror (1990 – Charles Johnson’s favorite), and A Hungry Heart (2005).

Growing up in segregated Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest boy in a family of 15 children, Parks never finished high school, being told by a white adviser that blacks were meant to be maids and porters, and college therefore a waste of time. When his mother died in 1927, Charles Johnson writes, he was sent to live with his sister in Minnesota, but was soon kicked out by her intolerant, bullying husband to live, at age 15, what he later called “a life in hell” on the streets.

Buying his first camera in a pawnshop (his ‘choice of weapon’ to combat poverty and racism), he went on to become the first (and only) black photographer for FSA, the first black fashion photographer for Vogue, the first black staff photographer for Life Magazine, and the first black director in Hollywood with The Learning Tree (1969), based on his semi-autobiographical 1963 novel, followed by the hugely successful box office hit Shaft (1971), both preserved in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.

Over the years he won some 40 honorary doctorates and awards, including the National Medal of Arts, the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP Image Award and the Oscar Micheaux Award, a testimony to what he calls in one of his autobiographies “a stubborn need to be somebody.”

A true Renaissance man – writer, poet, musician/composer, photojournalist, motion picture director – Gordon Parks was first and foremost a brilliant photographer. The FSA-photographs are a 30-year old Gordon Parks’ ‘apprenticeship’ work sensitively documenting the private and public life of black Americans in Massachusetts, New York and Harlem, Washington D.C., and Dayton, Florida.

For his more mature work you will have to consult a book like Gordon Parks: Half Past Autumn.   A Retrospective (Little, Brown and Company, 1997), a companion book to the 1997 exhibition at The Corcodan Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

But even so, the FSA-picture from August 1942 of Washington D.C. charwoman Ella Watson (known as American Gothic), standing with her mop and broom before a huge American flag on the wall behind her, has become perhaps the most iconic and best known of all his photographs.

His 1963 photo Boy with June Bug is on the front cover of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy (see Index).