Gordon Parks, a black train porter, picked up a discarded magazine and paged through the photographs, stopping on Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era images, shot for the US Farm Security Administration (FSA). Parks, who knew little about photography, had found his calling. He gathered up enough money to purchase a used Voigtländer Brilliant and began shooting.
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The world-renowned photographer and longtime Greenburgh resident had the odds stacked against him from the beginning. Parks was born in 1912, the 15th child of a tenant farmer and housemaid, in Fort Scott, Kansas. Segregation meant Parks could not play high-school sports or take college-prep courses. The death of his mother sent him to live with family in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dropping out of high school, Parks jumped from one gig to another. He played the piano at brothels, worked as a busboy in hotels, performed in a band, and toured as a semi-professional basketball player.
In 1933, Parks joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and married his first wife, Sally Alvis. The following year, he became a porter and dining-car waiter for North Coast Limited, a train that ran between Chicago and Seattle. After seeing Lange’s images and buying his first camera in 1937, he apprenticed himself to the darkroom. A local boutique hired Parks for fashion photography. Boxer Joe Louis’ wife, Marva, took notice, and helped convince Parks to move to Chicago to find work. An exhibition of his photographs chronicling Chicago’s South Side ghettos secured Parks an artistic fellowship. From there, he set sights on the FSA in Washington.
Roy Stryker, head of the FSA’s photography division in 1942, had reservations about hiring a black artist, as he knew he would have trouble navigating the racism in Washington at the time. As a test, Stryker asked Parks to spend time with the building’s cleaning lady. The result was American Gothic, a magnum opus that captured a weathered black woman holding a broom and mop in front of an American flag. It was Grant Wood for the 20th century.
Parks soon became a master at rendering social injustice on the printed page. When the FSA closed, he was hired as a freelancer by Glamour and Vogue (after Hearst had refused to hire an African American staffer). Parks’ family didn’t like the “hardness of Harlem’s busy streets,” as Parks would later recall, and moved to a Tudor-style cottage at 15 Adams Place in the Parkway Gardens section of Greenburgh. Their neighbors included Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Cab Calloway, and Moms Mabley. The Parkway Gardens Civic Association described the enclave, which Parks called home for nearly three decades, as “the Sag Harbor or Oak Bluffs of Westchester.”
Soon, Life tapped Parks as its first black photographer. Assignments took him to the gangs of Harlem, slums of Brazil, and streets of Paris. The photographer had the street savvy to get his lens up close. His work gave Americans a taste of the true grit of modern social injustice.
Photographic technique aside, part of Parks’ real talent dwelled in his diverse field of view. He captured the electric personalities of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Eldridge Cleaver; the isolated struggle of poverty; the anonymous jumble of limbs, cuffs, and drugs behind bars; and the glamor of Great Society divas—all with unvarnished clarity.
Parks excelled not just in photography, but also in texturing the social world. As he said in an interview decades later, “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs….I had to have a camera.”
He eventually moved from the still camera to film. Parks directed The Learning Tree, about life in 1920s Kansas, making him the first African American to direct for a major Hollywood studio. In 1989, the movie (produced by Warner Bros.) joined 25 others on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. His film Shaft inadvertently paved the way for the “blaxploitation” pseudo-genre, while his PBS TV film Solomon Northup’s Odyssey was the precursor to 12 Years a Slave.
During his lifelong career, Parks also published memoirs and poetry and composed classical arrangements and a ballet. Donald Faulkner, director of the New York State Writers Institute, called Parks “the Jackie Robinson of film.” By the time he passed away in 2006, Parks had received the National Medal of Arts, dozens of honorary doctorates, and designation as one of the country’s most important black artists. HBO released a documentary on his life called Half Past Autumn. In 2007, the Parks’ home in Greenburgh was designated a local landmark.