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

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.

The discrimination that he experienced in the city left him raw. During this period, he took what became one of his signature photographs, a picture of Ella Watson, a cleaning woman who worked in the agency's building. He positioned Watson in front of an American flag, a broom in one hand and a mop in the other. He named the picture "American Gothic, Washington, D.C." The photograph captured his style of focusing on one particular person to illustrate a broad social theme.

"I never allowed the fact that I experienced bigotry and discrimination to step in the way of doing what I have to do," he once said. "I don't understand why other people let that destroy them."

Parks later went on to Life magazine, where from 1948 to 1968 he covered segregation, crime and other issues. His 1961 photograph of a poor Brazilian boy named Flavio da Silva brought in enough donations to help the family build a house.

St. Clair Bourne, who directed a 2000 HBO documentary on Parks's life, was a young photographer when he met Parks while covering a civil rights march. He was one of many black filmmakers and photographers who respected Parks for his historical role.

"He educated white people about the black experience, and as an artist he used his skills to do that," Bourne said in a 2000 article in the New York Times. "Today, it would be harder: the lines, political and cultural, have hardened. But when Gordon came along, there was a great deal of ignorance about the real experience of black people."

A self-taught pianist, Parks composed Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1953) and Tree Symphony (1967). In 1989, he composed and choreographed "Martin," a ballet dedicated to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

His autobiographies were "A Choice of Weapons" (1966), "To Smile in Autumn" (1979), and "Voices in the Mirror" (1990). His poetry anthologies include "A Poet and His Camera" (1968), "Arias of Silence" (1994) and "Glimpses Toward Infinity" (1996).

In 1998, Parks donated 227 pieces of his work to the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

He was married and divorced three times. Survivors include three children.

Freedom, Parks said, was the theme of all of his work: "Not allowing anyone to set boundaries, cutting loose the imagination and then making the new horizons."

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