I Had To Have A Camera: Gordon Parks

“I saw that 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.” – Gordon Parks

While working as a porter on a passenger train, Gordon Parks happened to pick up a magazine left behind by a fellow porter. In it were images taken by Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, and others from the Farm Security Administration. It was a series of photographs showing men, women, and children, all suffering from poverty; the migrant workers of the Dust Bowl. Parks could not stop staring; he was mesmerized. He went back to the magazine over and over again, memorizing the subjects’ faces and the names of the photographers. Not long after, he found himself in a movie theater watching a newsreel of a photographer who had been shooting the bombing and sinking of a US gunship by Japanese war planes. The photographer came out on stage afterwards to answer questions and Parks was hooked. He immediately saw the power a photograph could have and made up his mind then and there to become a photographer.

This was not an easy decision to make since, at the time, Parks was struggling just to get enough to eat, let alone being able to afford a camera. Born in Kansas in 1912, his mother died when he was only 14, and he was sent to live with his sister and her husband in Minnesota. It didn’t take long for his brother-in-law (with whom he never got along and, in fact, never wanted him there in the first place) to kick him out to the streets. He spent the next several years taking any job he could get: a pianist in a brothel, a waiter, a janitor and a porter on the “400”, a train that ran daily across Minnesota to Chicago. Despite living hand to mouth, he was determined to become a photographer. With $17 in his pocket, he went into a pawnshop and found a Voigtlander Brilliant for $12.50, which left him enough for three rolls of film. He immediately went out and began to shoot.

His first roll of film, which he handed over to Eastman Kodak to be developed, caught the eye of the manager, and within six weeks he had an exhibit in the window of their downtown Minneapolis store. Encouraged and inspired, he spent every waking moment, when he was not working, studying photography and shooting. He had found his passion and couldn’t wait to escape his life on the railroad in order to make a living as a full-time photographer. He began studying old issues of Vogue he would find laying around on the train, looking at each image, determined to make his own photographs better. He stopped in every major department store looking for opportunities to shoot fashion. Despite not having a portfolio, or even samples, he refused to let that stop him. He was fearless, talking to anyone he could about job opportunities, and, in 1938, it paid off. Parks walked into Frank Murphy’s, a high-end department store in St. Paul, where he asked if they needed a photographer to shoot their window displays. Frank Murphy promptly turned him down, but Mrs. Murphy overheard him and gave him a chance. She told him to come back the next night ready to shoot; she would have the models and clothes ready. Panicking, he realized he didn’t have the equipment he needed for that kind of shoot. He called in sick the next day and raced around finding the right lights, film, and camera, and trying to figure out how to use it.

The night went really well; he was able to bluff his way through most of it. There was a problem though. Late that night, when he developed the film, he realized he had double-exposed every shot, but one. He confessed to Mrs. Murphy, who just laughed it off and allowed him to keep shooting. She loved his work and it was immediately shown throughout the store, as well as the front windows. This brought about his second big break. Marva Louis, wife of the fighter Joe Louis, passed by the windows and called him with a proposal to come work in Chicago.

Shooting fashion in Chicago was in many ways a dream job for Parks, but it wasn’t what he really wanted to do. He wanted to use his camera to make a difference in the world, like the Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans photos he first saw in that magazine on the train. Through a friend he heard about the Julien Rosenwald fellowship, a grant given to African American artists, writers, etc. It had never been given to a photographer, but Parks was determined to try. “I knew that more than anything else I wanted to strike at the evil of poverty,” Parks said. “And here it was, under my feet, all around and above me… Everything looked wrecked and bombed out: this is what I would photograph and submit for the Rosenwald fellowship.” After months of hard work, he ended up winning the grant, which led him to an introduction to the head of the Farm Security Administration, Roy Stryker; and a job offer in DC, which, according to Parks, was where he “found out what prejudice was really like.”

Roy Stryker was incredible influence over Parks, teaching him to look before jumping in to shoot. Stryker’s first assignment was to have Parks leave his cameras behind and walk through the city. This was Parks’ first experience with real segregation; separate drinking fountains, not being served at restaurants, sitting in a special section of movie theaters. It angered him. Stryker then sent him to speak to a “charwoman” (cleaning lady), working in the building, just to “see what she has to say about life and things.” This woman, Ella Watson, was to become the subject of one of his more iconic images, American Gothic; but more than that, his experience with her (he spent nearly a month following her around, talking to her and shooting) taught him how to approach a subject, “you didn’t have to go in with all horns blasting away.”

The experience he gained working with Stryker was invaluable, but it eventually came to an end when the government stopped the program. After a brief stint with the Civilian Conservation Corps, he took a job as a photographer with Standard Oil (the company Roy Stryker was now with). That and freelancing as a fashion photographer paid the bills, but he knew it wasn’t the direction he wanted his career to take. Knowing that plenty of white photographers had failed to get a job at Life Magazine, he knew the odds were against him even getting seen, let alone hired. Using the same fearlessness that got him into fashion, he walked straight into the office of the Photo Editor, Wilson Hicks. Hicks barked at him, asking how he got in there. According to Parks’ autobiography, he replied, “I just walked in.” “Well, just walk out.” “I wanted to show you some pictures, and I was afraid I couldn’t get an appointment.” “You don’t walk into someone’s office without asking first.” “Sorry. Can’t you take a quick look?” Hicks relented.

While flipping through the photos, Hicks called two others into his office. They asked Parks if he had a story in mind. Thinking fast, he told them he wanted to do one on the gang wars in Harlem. They agreed, gave him a budget and he set off to begin work, wondering the whole time if he would be able to pull it off, but knowing what an important opportunity it was. It was exactly what he was looking for, the chance to change the injustices he saw around him. After seeing so many of his friends killed through senseless violence as he was growing up, this was something tangible he could do to change it, to keep it from happening to other kids. This first story for Life, like just about everything else he tried, was a huge success. One of the images got him the offer of the cover, which he had to turn down. It was a photo of the leader of the gang holding a smoking gun. Parks had promised the kid that he wouldn’t publish anything that would get him in trouble. He even went so far as to destroy the negative. The story did get published, however, and Parks found himself hired by Life as the first black staff photographer and was there from 1948 to 1972. In addition to working for Life, he continued his fashion shoots. They took him all over Europe, shooting models, celebrities, and politicians. He was given stories which led him into the Black Muslim world, photographing Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, embedding him deep into the Civil Rights movement.

Though Parks had become an important, and groundbreaking photographer, even that wasn’t enough to satisfy him. In 1962, he turned to writing. He began with his first novel, The Learning Tree, a fictional story loosely based on his life as a black child in Kansas. He went on to write and publish eighteen books; including memoirs, novels, and books of his poetry. The Learning Tree was turned into a screenplay and, with it, Parks became the first African American film director. Soon after, he took the job as the director of the movie, Shaft, which became the film which ushered in the genre of “blaxploitation” films, which were extremely popular in the 1970s. This also led Parks to directing three more films, as well as several movies made for television. Even with his success as a photographer, writer, and director, he never forgot his musical roots. From Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in 1953, to Tea Symphony in 1967 to 1989, when he wrote the music and libretto for the ballet, Martin, a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although he did continue to make photographs, most of his later years were spent organizing and assembling retrospectives of his images.

Gordon Parks died of cancer in 2006, at the age of 93. A high school dropout, Parks spent his life fighting the inequalities he found in the world around him. After being immersed in violence growing up, watching his mother die at a young age and seeing several of his friends killed by gangs, he knew the fragility of life and never took it for granted. He knew all of it was a gift to be celebrated. During his sixty year-long career, Parks was a film director, a writer, a poet, a composer, as well as a photographer. He photographed everything and everyone he could get in front of his lens. From poverty to wealth, power to obscurity, activists like Malcolm X to celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. His biggest contributions, however, and what he should be remembered most for, are the choices he made. He chose not to fight with hatred. The deck was stacked against him from the day he was born and yet he lived by the lesson his mother told him over and over, “If a white boy can do it, so can you, so don’t ever give me your color as a cause for failing.” He saw a world that needed changing and he went about changing it with a camera.”Those people who want to use a camera should have something in mind, there’s something they want to show, something they want to say…,” Parks said. “I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty. I could have just as easily picked up a knife or a gun, like many of my childhood friends did… most of whom were murdered or put in prison… but I chose not to go that way. I felt that I could somehow subdue these evils by doing something beautiful that people recognize me by, and thus make a whole different life for myself, which has proved to be so.”


Gordon Parks Foundation
Gordon Parks on Pinterest

Recommended Reading

A Harlem Family 1967
Fields of Vision: The Photographs of Gordon Parks: The Library of Congress
Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective

1. Gordon Parks, A Choice of Weapons (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1965), p 208
2. p 220-221
3. Gordon Parks, A Hungry Heart (New York: Atria Books, 2005), p 112-113

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