Gordon Parks

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Winning Nomination

I nominate Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks.

Gordon Parks was one of the true geniuses who got his start here in Minnesota. Born in Fort Scott, Kansas he did not come to Minnesota until after his mother died. He was fifteen at the time and lived with an older, married sister and her husband. After an argument with the sister’s husband, Gordon was moved out of the house and was literally a teen age homeless person.

As a young boy his parents had instilled in him the many traits for building strong character. He was raised to believe he could never blame failure on the color of his skin. He dropped out of school because he had to make a living and worked any kind of job he could get. He taught himself to play the piano well enough to entertain in a brothel. He later became so accomplished as a musician that he wrote concertos for pianos and orchestra. I had the honor to attend the last concert he gave here in Saint Paul on Sunday, February 22, 1998, at the Landmark Center. He self-taught himself all the real important things in life, and that is what is so amazing about Mr. Parks.

While working as a train porter on one of the lines running between Chicago and the west coast he became fascinated with pictures he saw in a fashion magazine. He bought a $12.50 camera from a pawn shop, and the rest is history. He married his first wife, Sally Alvis, in 1933 and moved to Harlem. One of his early photos that brought him immediate recognition was of Ella Watson, a cleaning lady in a government buildings in Washington D.C. Miss Watson posed in her working clothes with a mop in one hand and a broom in the other in front of an American Flag. He called it, American Gothic.

He became the first Negro photographer for Life and Vogue magazines; he taught himself the art of oil painting, He wrote many significant books and broke racial barriers in Hollywood as the first Black Director of a major studio. He co-produced, directed, wrote the screenplay, and composed the musical score for the film of his 1963 novel The Learning Tree. Other films he directed and made cameo appearances in were Shaft,1971; Shaft’s Big Score, 1972, and many documentaries. With his camera as his weapon he traveled around the world fighting for equality and justice and made photographs that have won many awards.

He spent ninety three years on this earth and with all the awards he received, one wonders how he had time to accomplish all that he accomplished. As a photographer, movie director, writer, composer, activist, and painter, the number of awards he received are spectacular. To name a few: Julius Rosenwald Fellowship Notable Book Award, 1941; American Library Association for A Choice of Weapons, 1966; Emmy award for documentary of A Harlem Family, 1968; the prestigious Spingarn Medal, 1972; Christopher Award for Flavio, 1978; National Medal of Arts, 1988; Library of Congress National Film Registry Classic File Honor for The Learning Tree, 1989; Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of The District of Columbia, 1996; Introduction into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, 2002; Jackie Robinson Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, 2002. He also received more than twenty Honorary Doctorates.

Mr. Parks passed away at his home in New York City on March 7, 2006

~James R. Brown, Minneapolis, MN




A Renaissance man

Gordon Parks loved to tell the story of how he got his start as a fashion photographer--one of many paths he followed in his long, varied life. It was 1938 when he walked into Frank Murphy's, an exclusive women's clothing store in downtown St. Paul, and asked if they needed anyone to take photos of the store's runway models. He didn't mention that he didn't own a camera and that his only experience with models was a recent perusal of Vogue magazine. Frank Murphy turned him down, but on his way out of the store, Mrs. Murphy suggested that Parks return after the store closed. "Later I asked her why she took a chance on me, and she said she had just had an argument with Frank and was trying to get under his skin," Parks recalled. "Actually, I think she was just a woman who had a great heart."

Parks's photos caught the eye of Marva Louis, wife of heavyweight champion Joe Louis. She persuaded Parks to move to Chicago, where he quickly honed his skills. In 1941, he received a fellowship that offered a choice of photo assignments. Parks chose to work for Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration. From there, he went on to assignments for the Office of War Information, Vogue, Glamour, and, finally, Life magazine, where he worked as a photographer and essayist for nearly twenty-five years. His success at Life led to other ventures, including publishing (as a cofounder of Essence), writing (including The Learning Tree and A Choice of Weapons), and film (especially Shaft, an Oscar-winning film that was both a commercial blockbuster and a racial breakthrough).

Gordon Parks's varied interests and boundless curiosity resulted in a body of work that shed light on the poverty, racism, and powerlessness that faced African Americans. His best-known photograph, which he titled "American Gothic," depicts a black cleaning woman standing stiffly in front of an American flag. Through his photos, his writings, and his films, he made groundbreaking statements about the inequities he experienced firsthand. "I'm not proud to be the first black to do these things," he said in a 1996 interview. "There were many blacks who should have been there before me because they were more talented, but they just never got the chance."

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