Gordon Parks: I Am You

C/O Berlin presents I Am You, an exhibition of photographs by the late Gordon Parks

In March 1933, the month of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration, 20-year-old Gordon Parks found himself in Harlem, at a crossroads in his life. Behind him, a hometown filled with racial segregation and bigotry, a loving family, a deceased mother, a bitter period of homelessness since age 15. Ahead, the potential to be one of the most acclaimed photographers of the 20th century, as well as a highly regarded composer, filmmaker and writer. All to come, if he chose the right path.

He was a special kind of guy and I’m not bragging on him

Stranded after a trip to New York, Parks was wandering Harlem’s streets in desperate need of cash. A quick answer came in the form a sharply dressed man in a zoot suit, going by the name of Charlie. “How’s it going, man?” asked Charlie, cigarette smoke curling through his lips. “Not too hot. I need a lift, and a big one,” replied Parks. A new employee may have fallen into Charlie’s hands. “Like to make some bread? I need somebody to deliver some little packages to some people around here. They’ll hand you some loot and you bring it back to me, then I’ll put some bread in your pockets,” said Charlie.

The prospect of bread was too good, so Parks agreed to Charlie’s proposition. But after a nightmare about being trapped in prison, Parks thought twice and never spoke to Charlie again. A few years later, his career as a photographer would take off. Something seemed to have nudged his conscience that night. “Your heart will tell your frets which roads to take,” said his father by his mother’s deathbed. “There’ll be signposts along the way giving out directions. You’ll have the right to question them, but don’t ignore them.”

Poverty and Racism

The last of Sarah and Jackson Parks’s 15 children, Gordon was born on 30 November 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas – which he described in his final memoir, A Hungry Heart as “the mecca of bigotry”. Losing many childhood friends to acts of racist violence, he described how, “Those days I ate hatred, a lot of it. Yet thanks to a caring mother and father, I also ate cabbage, cornbread, grapes, apples, strawberries, watermelon, and slaughtered hogs from a smokehouse.”

Those years of love and care, amidst the racism and segregation that plagued Fort Scott, would lay a solid foundation for the rest of his life. The night before his mother was buried, in May 1928, Parks slept beside her coffin. Losing his friends and now his mother, death had
already been a close companion. When staring into his mother’s open casket, “The fear of death gave up and left”.

More struggles were to come. Sent to live with his sister in St Paul, Minnesota, Parks was kicked out on the winter streets by his brother-in-law David. “I moved off to face the world,” Parks said. “I was at the bottom of it. There was only one direction to take, that was up.” Surviving the winter, he found love in spring with a girl named Sally Alvis. After working various menial jobs, he married Alvis and they welcomed Gordon Jr in 1934. That same year, Parks started working as a waiter on the North Coast Limited, a train from Chicago to Seattle.

One night at the Chicago Oriental Theatre, following a Clark Gable film, Parks saw a war report on the Japanese bombing of the US gunship Panay. The cameraman, Norman Alley, documented the event until the ship sank. After the report, Alley jumped out from behind the Oriental curtain to roaring applause from the crowd. Parks was awestruck and carried this mood all the way on the train to Seattle and into a pawnshop on King Street where he bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brilliant, for $7.50. Parks had begun his lifelong mission. “I bought what was to be my weapon against poverty and racism,” he wrote.

On the train back to St Paul, his enthusiasm was furthered by a chance encounter with Magnum photographer Robert Capa, whose Life-stamped luggage came to Parks’s attention. “Mr Capa, be sure to save a locker for me at the magazine you’re working for,” said
Parks. “OK,” said a bewildered Capa. “I’ll remember.” Parks’s future was set
in stone.

Fashions and the FSA

After spending three years developing his skills as a documentarian, capturing whatever caught his eye on the street, falling off a Seattle pier when photographing seagulls in flight, Parks had gained an interest in fashion, and so found himself at the door of high-end St Paul womenswear store Frank Murphy.

“What can I do for you?” asked an unimpressed Murphy. “I’d like to shoot fashions for you, sir,” said Parks. Murphy waved him away from his store but Mrs Murphy intervened, convincing him to give the budding photographer a chance. A few days later, Parks shot 12 gowns on three models, impressing both the Murphys and himself. At the lab after his first shoot, Parks discovered he had double-exposed all but one image, a print of which he placed at Frank Murphy’s door the next morning. Mrs Murphy admired the image and wondered about the rest. Parks apologised and explained his mistake. “Would they all have been that good?” she asked. “Oh, that’s probably the worst of the lot,” he said.

He reshot the models and was given a healthy cheque by the Murphys. The images also impressed another woman, Marva Louis, the wife of then World Heavyweight champion Joe Louis. She insisted Parks move to Chicago to shoot fashion and society photos. He accepted. Before setting off, on 4 November 1940, his daughter Toni was born.

In Chicago, Parks’s documentary work took off. He photographed the hardships experienced by black people living on the city’s south side and after exhibiting the work won a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, championing equal opportunities for all Americans. This granted him an apprenticeship to work in the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography unit in Washington DC – among photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Carl Mydans.

At the FSA, he was in the care of highly respected photographer’s manager Roy Stryker. “I’m going to give you your very first assignment – and it’s to be without your camera,” said Stryker. “Several blocks up the street is Julius Garfinckel’s department store. It gets very cold here in winter, so buy yourself a heavier coat. On the corner, across the street is a restaurant, White’s House. Have lunch.” At both establishments, Parks was rejected for being black. Stryker’s assignment had taught him quite a bit about his nation’s capital. Back in his office, Stryker explained to Parks that bigotry couldn’t be photographed in an obvious manner. “Talk to older black people who have spent a lifetime experiencing what you went through this afternoon,” said Stryker.

After their discussion, in a room at the FSA, Parks encountered an elderly black cleaning lady called Ella Watson and heard her life story. Watson told him how Southern mobsters had hanged her father, how her husband was shot two days before her daughter’s birth, how her teenage daughter was now bearing two illegitimate children, and her grandchild was stricken with paralysis. Parks had already found his subject for Stryker.

The photograph he took of Watson, entitled ‘American Gothic’ – a reference to Grant Wood’s 1930 painting of a white farming couple – is now regarded as one of his most famous images.

In 1943, the FSA was absorbed by the Office of War Information (OWI), where Parks was sent to work along with Stryker. At the OWI, he documented the 332nd all-black fighter group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, but was denied clearance to follow them to the war in Europe. Parks quit the OWI and ended up, once again, in Harlem. “Life had given me a smooth ride for a few years, but now it had dumped me back in Harlem,” he wrote. “Winter was coming, and I was jobless and almost broke.”

Editorial Work

Determined, he knocked at the doors of Harper’s Bazaar but was denied work because the Hearst Company did not hire blacks. With a little help from Stryker, Parks was sent in the direction of Condé Nast, where art director Alexander Liberman hired him; he had become the first black photographer for Vogue.

On 4 March 1944, Sally called from Minneapolis where she was staying with her relatives. Parks’s second son David had been born. “About three weeks after I was born, Dad and the rest of the family had moved to New York City,” says David, now 70 years old and running a film production company in Texas. “I was born when he just started to really make it big.”

While he had become a fully-fledged fashion photographer at Vogue, Parks’s hunger to be a documentarian was growing. A 1945 assignment for Stryker, who had started working in public relations at Standard Oil, took Parks to Yellowknife, Canada to document the struggles of Native Americans. He left a lasting impression on the locals, who named Great Gordon Lake after him.

“There have been about 15 or 16 schools named after my dad,” says David. “George Lucas and his wife are also setting up the Gordon Parks Arts Hall in 2015 at the University of Chicago. He was a special kind of guy, and I’m not bragging on him, but when you have all these places named after you, there’s something going on there.”

At the end of the second world war, America was still a racist country. For Parks, it was time to take action. “Black people were on the move against racism,” he wrote. “I wanted to move with them. The right forum was uncertain, but neither the chic pages of Vogue nor the conservative offices of Standard Oil had the answer. A vast and restless audience was waiting. The problem was to move within range of its understanding.”

His request to Capa to save him a locker was about to be granted.


In 1948, Parks arrived unannounced at the office of Wilson Hicks, Life magazine’s toughest picture editor, to present his portfolio. “How’d you get in here?” asked Hicks. “I just walked in,”
replied Parks. “Well, just walk out,” said Hicks. Determined as ever, he won over Hicks and chose his first assignment – a story on Harlem gangs. Parks had become the first black photographer to work for both Life and Vogue.

In Harlem’s 25th Precinct, looking for a suitable subject for his story, Parks encountered 16-year-old Red Jackson, the leader of the notorious Nomads gang who Jackson assured were “the toughest ones up here”. Parks told Jackson he wanted to help the Nomads cool things down by exposing the foolishness of gang violence in Harlem. Thinking it a “crazy” idea at first, Jackson, with a little of Parks’s street savvy and charm, was convinced and decided to show him around his turf. “Why a gang in the first place, Red?” asked Parks. “Protection,
man,” said Jackson. “They say, ‘You belong to a gang, cat?’ ‘No’ means you get robbed and bopped. If you’re a Nomad, they think twice before they start any shit.”

Not only did Parks convince Jackson to do the story, he gained a friend – as he would with many of his subjects. After watching Jackson threaten to cut out the heart of a rival gang member, Parks was troubled at seeing “a talented individual so badly misdirected.” His solution was to invite Jackson and the gang around for a meal with his family, hoping to show them a better life to aspire to.

“I was a teenager then,” reminisces Toni, now 74 and a photographer based in the UK. “It was during the day and we were all there with Red.” The outing put Jackson in good spirits. To return the favour, he asked if Gordon Jr. would like to hang out with the gang for the day. Parks approved, to the joy of his son – who was returned safely after.

Back at Life, the story on Jackson was praised by Hicks, who wanted to run it on the cover. But the chosen image was compromising; it showed Jackson wielding a firearm. Parks cut up the frame and the article was dropped from the cover. The story was still a huge success and put Parks in the spotlight as a rising star. His illustrious career for Life had begun, and would span 20 years and over 300 assignments. “It was very exciting,” says Toni. “He’d take us to Life, around Rockefeller Center, and David and I would play there. It was like our little playground.”

Between 1949-51, Parks worked for Life’s Paris bureau, living in the capital with his family and absorbing vast quantities of classical music and modern literature. “When he went there it just opened him up to all kinds of things,” says Toni. His career as a writer and composer would blossom shortly after – his first concerto was performed in Venice in 1956 and his acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel The Learning Tree was published in 1963. It was also in this period in Paris that he would embark on a journey of great personal importance, on a story for Life which has remained unpublished to this day.

Hometown and Catacumba

In 1950, for the first time in 23 years, Parks returned to his hometown, Fort Scott. Assigned to a story on segregated schools and given free reign on the subject, he chose to track down 11 old classmates from the Plaza School, now spread across the States, before visiting Fort Scott itself. “None of us understood why the first years of our education were separated from those of the white; nor did we bother to ask,” Parks wrote in his unpublished draft. “The situation existed when we were born.”

The Fort Scott trip initiated a highly productive period in Parks’s career, in which he would work on some of his most acclaimed stories for Life. In 1961, he was assigned to document poverty in Rio de Janeiro. Resting one day under a jacaranda in the Catacumba favela with Life reporter and translator José Gallo, he encountered a small boy with a tin of water on his head. “Death was all over him, in his sunken eyes, cheeks and jaundiced colouring,” wrote Parks in his third autobiography Voices in the Mirror. “Jerking sideways like a mechanical toy, he smiled a smile I will never forget.”

Life requested an impoverished father and his family – but, with that 12-year-old boy Flavio da Silva, Parks had found a subject that “said more about poverty than a dozen poor fathers.” Parks and Gallo followed da Silva to his home in a tin shack where he looked after a family of eight, washing and cooking for his siblings with the water he carried to the favela. After spending time with him, Parks discovered da Silva was sick. They visited the local hospital were he was diagnosed with bronchial asthma, malnutrition and suspected tuberculosis.

“This little chap has just about had it,” said the doctor. Walking back to the favela, da Silva stared up at the Cristo Redentor statue and said, “Papa says El Cristo has turned his back on the favela. I’m not scared of death. It’s my brothers and sisters I worry about. What would
they do?” The story, ‘Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty’, published in June 1961, had such an effect on readers that thousands of dollars were sent in to Life, enough to cure da Silva of his ailments and move his family out of the favela. Parks’s camera had become a force to be reckoned with.

Harlem Family

After stories on Malcolm X – which resulted in a friendship and the honour of becoming godfather to his daughter Qubilah – and Muhammad Ali, Parks produced his most potent photo essay yet. Published in a special section of Life in March 1968, ‘Race and Poverty: The Cycle of Despair’ was his story ‘A Harlem Family’. It came about through a discussion with friend Phillip Kunhardt, Life’s assistant managing editor and founder of the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation, where the Gordon Parks Collection was created in 2007. “Why is there so much racial tension across the country? And why are blacks rioting in the big cities practically every month?” asked Kunhardt. Parks said he would live with a family in Harlem for a week, then answer Kunhardt’s question.

At the anti-poverty board in Harlem, Parks met Bessie Fontenelle, a mother of eight who saw the importance of exposing the misfortunes of the impoverished. “OK, Mr Parks,” she said, “looks like you’re going to be part of the family for a while.” He then visited the Fontenelles, who had no heating and little else besides. “Ten of them slept huddled together on mattresses in the kitchen with the oven going all night,” wrote Parks in the article. The father, Norman, had been out of work for eight months. While photographing the family objectively, Parks became fully involved, taking the children out for fried chicken and chips, and Bessie to see her incarcerated son Harry. Acts of kindness and compassion – as passed on by Parks’s own parents – often overshadowed the journalistic rule of keeping a distance from one’s subject.

“Your purpose is to show that hunger is someone’s enemy. Yet it’s hard, knowing that you could fill their ice box with little effort or expense,” he wrote in his diary.

At the end of Parks’s time with the Fontenelles, Norman, after drinking all night – a common treatment for poverty and unemployment – gave Bessie a horrible beating. In response, she put sugar and honey in a pan of boiling water and threw it over his face, burning off his skin. “Why the sugar and honey?” asked Parks the morning after. “To make it stick and burn for a while,” she said.

As with the story on da Silva, the article captured the hearts of Life readers and brought in thousands of dollars. Life bought the Fontenelles a new home in Long Island and helped Norman get a job. But for the Fontenelles, luck didn’t stick. Less than a year after moving into their new home, it burned down in the night, killing Norman and son Kenneth. Bessie and the family returned to Harlem.

“She wanted to go back to the city,” Toni says. “And there, her kids died in jail, some on drugs. [Eldest son] Norman Jr is the only one that’s alive now from the whole family, he has a whole batch of children himself.”

The tragedy caused Parks a great deal of grief. “The painful memories are rumbling through me like the vestiges of a shipwreck,” he wrote. A month after the story was published, Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated. Showing Kunhardt and millions of Life readers how racial tensions had reached boiling point, the message in Parks’s Fontenelles article was more important than ever. In his obituary to Dr King in Life, Parks wrote, “He spent the last dozen years of his life preaching love to men of all colours. And for all this, a man, white like you, blasted a bullet through his neck... If the death of this great man doesn’t unite us, we are committing ourselves to suicide.”

Parks continued to document the movements of blacks against racism, producing stories on Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers. In 1971, he directed his highly successful blaxploitation film Shaft, whose protagonist gave young blacks a new hero to identify with. A year later, Life folded as a weekly publication. Parks developed his career as a director, releasing four more feature films; author, writing four autobiographies; and composer, directing a ballet tribute to Dr King, Martin, in 1989.

“Anything he did, he did it very well,” says David. “He was also a ski jumper, played basketball with the Globetrotters, and was a very good tennis player, too.”

Parks died of cancer in March 2006, in New York, aged 93. He was buried in Fort Scott, his life coming round full circle. While multitalented, it was his stories for Life that would hold special importance right up to his death. “If Dad had a story, he remained friends with them,” says David.

“Like Red Jackson, who was his first break at Life. The irony was, he was the last person to see Dad before he died. They spent at least 10 minutes together but I don’t know if Dad was coherent enough to know it was Red. When I was driving Red back home to Harlem, we were listening to some music and it came on the radio that Gordon Parks had passed. We silently drove to Red’s and that was the last time I saw him, too – he died a year later. Life definitely has a way of coming around.”