Unsung Heroes of Black History: Gordon Parks

Every February, the United States commemorates Black History Month. Throughout the month, Ella’s Voice will be profiling some of our favorite unsung heroes of Black History To contribute to this series, email ellasvoice@ellabakercenter.org.

I've always loved photography. Pictures express things that words and even art can not. One of my favorite photographers of all time is Gordon Parks. Despite growing up in poverty, Parks  became a premier photographer in the 1940s, eventually working for Glamour, Vogue, and other prominent New York magazines.

Part social justice activist, part visionary, and full time photographer, Gordon Parks was the first African American to work as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration. There, he developed a powerful documentary style depicting slums, poverty, and the marginal existences of African Americans. One of these very photos moved me deeply at an early age. It was a retelling of the classic painting  "American Gothic."  In this version, a woman named Elle Watson stands with a broom in one hand and a mop in the other, staring straight into the camera.

Of his photography work for the FSA, he commented, “I had known poverty firsthand, but there I learned how to fight its evil--along with the evil of racism—with a camera.”

In 1948, he became a photographer for Life magazine—their first African American photographer-—and worked at the magazine for the next quarter century. His celebrated photojournalism included portrayals of Harlem gang warfare, leading American poets, the civil rights movement, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King's death, and the Black Panthers.

Later, Parks would direct eight films, ranging from documentaries to thrillers. In 1969, he became the first black director for a major Hollywood studio when Warner Brothers released The Learning Tree, a film based on Parks' autobiographical novel. From there he went on to several commercial successes, including Shaft (1971) and Shaft's Big Score (1972). Over the years, Parks published a number of novels and memoirs as well as poetry. An extraordinary musician, he also composed classical, blues, and popular music.

Gordon Parks was a bold man that told stores through his photography. The moving imagery that he captured he allowed our society to progress. Thank you Gordon Parks for your trailblazing courage.

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