parks, Gordon, photographer
Gordon Parks was a photographer, musician, writer and director whose work focused on social issues in America from the 1940s until his death in 2006. This 1968 photo depicts him discussing the film that he made out of his semi-autobiographical novel "The Learning Tree." (AP/Shutterstock)

Black History Month Profiles: Gordon Parks, Photographer and Humanitarian

During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers such as Gordon Parks who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn more about important figures.

Born: Nov. 30, 1912, Fort Scott, Kansas
Died: March 7, 2006, New York, New York
Best known for: Being the first Black photographer to have work featured in Life and Vogue magazines.

(Everett/Shutterstock)

Between the 1940s and 2000s, Gordon Parks’ photography depicted the highs and lows of American life and culture during some of our most rich but also turbulent decades. His imagery focused on social issues including civil rights, poverty and urban life. In addition to being a photographer, he was also a composer, author, painter and filmmaker.

Parks was born into poverty in segregated Kansas in 1912 and bought his first camera at a pawnshop, inspired by magazine images of migrant workers he saw in his youth.

In 1999, he told an interviewer that he realized “the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”

Once he finally got that camera, he taught himself how to use it, and despite having never received professional training, Parks was ultimately awarded the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942. The fellowship, funded by Rosenwald, the president of Sears, funded projects for the “well-being of mankind” across fields and disciplines. The fellowship led to Parks’ position with the photography section of the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C. and later the Office of War Information. For both of these agencies, Parks captured the social conditions of the U.S. His photography became known for his expressive images that captured the impact of poverty, racism and discrimination.

In 1944, Parks went on to work for the Standard Oil Company’s photo documentary project while freelancing for Glamour and Ebony magazines. In 1948, he published a photo essay about the life of a gang leader in Harlem and became the first Black staff photographer and writer at Life magazine. He largely covered issues on racism, poverty and even fashion and entertainment, photographing notable figures like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Parks also became the first Black photographer to shoot for Vogue, publishing images of fashion and social issues at both magazines. Parks was an artist as well as an advocate; his photography depicting racist injustice helped bolster the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.

Parks accomplished another first in 1969 when he became the first Black person to write and direct a major Hollywood film, The Learning Tree, which was based on a novel he wrote. In 1989, he produced, directed and composed music for Martin, a ballet that was dedicated to the late Martin Luther King, Jr.

Parks worked up to his death in 2006, having been recognized with more than fifty honorary doctorates and accolades, including the National Medal of Arts he received in 1988. His work is displayed in museums and various institutions including the Gordon Parks Museum in Fort Scott, Kansas; the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; the Library of Congress and the National Archives.

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