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Gordon Parks, 1912-2006

'Life' Photographer And 'Shaft' Director Broke Color Barriers

Life magazine veteran Gordon Parks hams it up after a portrait session with nearly 100 prominent African American photographers in 2002 in Harlem, N.Y.
Life magazine veteran Gordon Parks hams it up after a portrait session with nearly 100 prominent African American photographers in 2002 in Harlem, N.Y. (By Suzanne Plunkett -- Associated Press)

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By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Gordon Parks, a photographer, filmmaker and poet whose pioneering chronicles of the black experience in America made him a revered elder and a cultural icon, died yesterday at his home in New York. He was 93.

His nephew, Charles Parks of Lawrence, Kan., said Parks had cancer and had been in failing health since 1993.

Parks, the son of a dirt farmer, rose from meager beginnings and above recurrent discrimination to walk through doors previously closed to African Americans. He was the first black person to work at Life magazine and Vogue, and the first to write, direct and score a Hollywood film, "The Learning Tree" (1969), which was based on a 1963 novel he wrote about his life as a farm boy in Kansas. He also was the director of the 1971 hit movie "Shaft," which opened the way for a host of other black-oriented films.

Elegant and aristocratic with a trademark mustache, his work traversed a vast landscape from poverty and crime to luxury and high fashion. He was a high school dropout turned award-winning photographer who traveled the world, using his camera with deftness and defiance.

"I didn't set out to do all that I did," Parks told an interviewer. "I think there was always fear -- fear of not being educated. All the things I did were done because of the fear of failure."

He was born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks on Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kan., the youngest of 15 children. His mother died when he was 16. He then lived with his sister in St. Paul, Minn., for a while before he struck out on his own. He left school and took on a number of jobs, including as a pianist with an all-white band and with the Civilian Conservation Corps.

While working on the Northern Pacific Railroad in the late 1930s, Parks picked up a magazine that had been left by a passenger and leafed through it. A photo spread of migrant workers and their living conditions taken by Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and others working for the Farm Security Administration captivated him.

One afternoon in the winter of 1937, during a stopover in Chicago, he saw newsreel footage taken by Norman Alley of the sinking of the USS Panay by Japanese forces. Parks compared Alley's documentary approach with the works of Farm Security Administration photographers and had an epiphany.

"Suddenly I became aware of all the things I could say through this medium," he once said. "I sat through another show, and even before I left the theater, I had made up my mind to become a professional photographer."

He paid $12.50 for his first camera, a Voigtlander Brilliant, at a pawnshop. His camera was "my weapon against poverty and racism," he said.

Soon he was photographing eye-catching young black women in fashion spreads for a St. Paul department store.

In 1942, he began working in Washington at the Farm Security Administration, the agency created to call attention to and produce a historical record of social and cultural conditions across the country.


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