A Conscience With a Lens

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 9, 2006

Those who remember say that seeing Gordon Parks on the streets of Manhattan in the early 1950s was a beautiful thing.

His hair was wavy and black and swept back. Sometimes he wore an ascot. Maybe the night before he had been up in Harlem, hanging out with Langston Hughes or Jimmy Baldwin at Small's Paradise, having a bit to drink, talking about his photographs of Paris. Parks was always going or coming. And he always had his cameras.

"I'd see him on downtown street corners, always with a camera," says Evelyn Cunningham, a journalist who befriended Parks in the 1950s. "He'd be testing the light."

Cunningham says she and others always marveled at how Parks kept up such a stylish persona -- and his reputation as a major photographer.

He held dinner parties and soirees, wore long coats in the rain, and boxed up his cameras in lovely suitcases to travel.

He had a thing for fresh flowers.

He was not a great poet, but he was a poet nevertheless.

"He was a very sexy guy," says Cunningham. "He was always hitting on women -- tall, short. I was amused. I'm not criticizing. All the women loved him. He was glamorous and had a very beautiful apartment. He also laughed at himself. That, I thought, was refreshing. He didn't take himself very seriously -- but he took his cameras seriously."

Parks, who died Tuesday at the age of 93 in New York, crisscrossed America and the world for decades. He was an artist, writer, movie director. He was a Life photographer when that gig gave you a powerful cachet. In America, he used his cameras like six-shooters, aiming right at the nation's broken souls, her sad-eyed children, her blacks, browns and whites, her shoeshine men and faceless women with both dishrag and dignity.

In recent years Parks had been treated with tributes, a still-trim man with white hair out at Manhattan museums and galleries, swiveling into throngs of admirers, his hand shooting to shake this hand and that as he was reminded time and time again of the impact of his books and movies and photographs. Especially the photographs.

Parks's life had daguerreotype qualities: He was born in Kansas, he had worked as a sheepherder, he once went on the road with a semi-pro basketball team. In his youth he had struck out like Huck Finn, living in railroad towns, scribbling notes on postcards, letting those back home know all was okay.

"He didn't know fear," says Deborah Willis, a professor of history and imaging at New York University who befriended Parks in the 1970s, and who has done much to bring the work of black photographers to wider audiences. "He would always say to me, 'Debbie, you gotta keep working.' He would show me a way of moving on. I think it was rooted in the way he grew up."

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