A Conscience With a Lens
Gordon Parks Turned Photographs Into Poetry

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."

Willis is teaching about Parks this semester at Harvard in a course titled "The Body and the Lens."

"It's about how Gordon used his work in a political way," she says.

Like Baldwin, Hughes and Richard Wright, he stretched boundaries and woke up others.

The government helped when he got work in the historical section of the Farm Security Administration's photography project.

In Washington in 1942 he aimed his camera at a woman no one had heard of by the name of Ella Watson. She was a cleaning lady with a thin, haunted face. She was poor as nickels. Parks once said the photograph said as much as a picture of a cross burning: "I thought then . . . that you could not photograph a person who turns you away from the motion picture ticket window, or someone who refuses to feed you, or someone who refuses to wait on you in a store. You could not photograph him and say, 'This is a bigot,' because bigots have a way of looking like everybody else."

"With that image," says Willis of the Watson photograph, "he was trying to show survival -- and beauty. The beauty in looking at the woman in raising her children and adopted daughter. The broom and mop were iconic images of the American woman. He was constructing a story about women who survived."

There was much work in the '50s photographing actors, fashion shows, beautiful things. He had seen the awful cruelties of life, and then he aimed his camera into the expanse of beauty as well. Broadway intrigued him. There's Tallulah Bankhead onstage in "Dear Charles." There's languidly beautiful Hildegarde Neff onstage in "Silk Stockings." There's Lorraine Hansberry -- a world-beater following her Broadway debut of "A Raisin in the Sun" -- at Sardi's, her hair high on her head. There's a parish priest strolling through a wheat field with a parishioner.

But in the '60s Parks was determined again to put the saga of America and her deep hurts into his lens.

Chicago at that time was as cruel a city as could be when it came to black poverty, its ailments profound and endless. Congress was trying to find ways to address poverty with legislation, but it wasn't enough. In Chicago, there were children eating plaster in their cold apartments because they were hungry.

For its March 8, 1968, issue, Life gave Parks both pen and camera. He went to Chicago and stood on a street corner, checking the light. He held nothing back.

"Look at me and know that to destroy me is to destroy yourself," the photographer wrote in introducing his photo spread. "You are weary of the long hot summers. I am tired of the long hungered winters. We are not so far apart as it might seem. There is something about both of us that goes deeper than blood or black and white. . . . My children's needs are the same as your children's."

Sixteen pages of Parks in words and photos: a child sleeping against a bedroom wall with holes; children studying in darkness; a picture of Jesus; a snaggle-toothed child who had been eating plaster; a man with a wave of tears in his eyes; a child and mother on a bed.

Poorer than nickels.

And yet, there was something beautiful about the pictures. Something sadly beautiful.

"The beauty of those Chicago slum pictures was not that there were pictures there of birds in flight with beautiful color," says Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, a photographer who was a friend of Parks's for 30 years. "It was a beauty of the human spirit. There was beauty, no matter how hard the life. And that's what Gordon found interesting."

A year after his Life magazine spread, Parks directed his first movie, "The Learning Tree," adapted from his autobiographical novel of the same name. Two years later would come his hit, "Shaft." The movie, from the Ernest Tidyman novel, was about a black private eye who solves a kidnapping. It was an amalgamation of Parks's interests in fashion, dignity, breaking barriers.

Parks received fine reviews, Richard Roundtree became a star and Isaac Hayes won an Oscar for the "Shaft" musical score.

"Just auditioning for that movie was such a big deal," says Sherri Bronfman, who played the kidnapped daughter Marcy. "That was like the beginning of black movies being done.

"The white movie executives didn't know anything about us as a people. Parks did. We were used to auditioning for white directors who we felt didn't know us."

Bronfman showed up to begin filming the movie dressed in a miniskirt and maxicoat. She was happy. She waved hello to Parks and got herself to the wardrobe department. She was given a brown outfit to wear. On the set, Parks looked at her. He didn't like what wardrobe had outfitted her in. "He said, 'What you were wearing when you came in, go put that back on.' He had an eye," says Bronfman.

In black America, "Shaft" became both movie and cultural moment. Shaft was cool, stopped traffic with a wave of the arm, and didn't kowtow to anyone. He wasn't afraid of the man because he was The Man.

"Shaft showed our men in a whole other light," says Bronfman. "Shaft was take-charge. And the way Gordon allowed language to go in the movie.

"The stereotypes were not there. The characters were clearly defined."

Parks kept writing, autobiographies and photo books. He was generous with his time.

Moutoussamy-Ashe was in a photo exhibit at a Harlem gallery in 1976 along with Dawoud Bey and Frank Stewart, two other photographers. At night she had studied Parks, looked at his images, thought she might someday meet that impressive man, but probably not. But there he was, at the door of her opening. "The great Gordon Parks showed!" she remembers. "We were just three novice photographers. Even the gallery owner said, 'Wow.' We were just stunned."

As he grew sicker last year, he seemed to grow lonelier. There were nurses around, but no wife. He had been married three times and divorced three times. He was smitten with photographer Ming Smith, had been for years, and asked her to marry him. "I blushed," says Smith. "I told him I'd think about it."

Visitors to his United Nations Plaza apartment were awed by the beauty and the decorative touches. There were always fresh flowers. Artwork and books were everywhere. On New Year's Day, Smith and Bronfman went by to visit. There was laughter, cookies, sweets. He insisted on playing something on the piano. He rose, stiffly, and sat down. He played Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."

An old man, young again. The women smiled.

When Bronfman reached in the closet for her coat, her eyes stopped. She saw it hanging there. Shiny and black and cool.

"His 'Shaft' coat," she says.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company