VOICES IN THE MIRROR An Autobiography By Gordon Parks Doubleday/Talese. 351 pp. $22.95
IT'S 1973 and the movie "Shaft" is into production. Richard Roundtree, razor in hand, passes Gordon Parks on the set. "Don't foul up the mustache," Parks warns. Roundtree explains he's been told to shave, but Parks insists -- and the big screen admits its first black leading man with a mustache, an image until then considered too macho to project.
This insistence of Gordon Parks's has been at work for five decades, covering a lot of ground, and in that time has won him many awards, including the National Medal of Art. Parks was the first black photographer at Vogue and Life magazines before becoming Hollywood's first black screenwriter and director. If the doors don't seem altogether open, in this time of Spike Lee, Keenan Ivory Wayans and Charles Burnett, we also can't forget that Gordon Parks broke the locks.
"At times I find myself surprised at just still being here," he begins Voices in the Mirror, his autobiography; and, though it is more memoir than thorough account, the book grabs your attention at once and keeps it through the century and across three continents. Born nearly 80 years ago on a farm in Fort Scott, Kan., Parks conveys the feelings as well as the facts, and he can tell you, among other things, how it feels to sweat behind a horse-drawn plow.
Nothing came easy at first except the love he knew as a child, which he credits with sustaining him through the rest. An old/new story: Opportunities for black men were scarce. Before he owned a camera he had survived homelessness, hunger, the kind of brutality that should have broken or at least embittered him. He'd traveled with both a band and a basketball team. He was a railroad porter when he discovered, in a discarded magazine, the work of Walker Evans and other documentarists of the Depression.
With a seven-dollar camera Parks set out to confront America with its other suffering face, the dark one. His first efforts earned him a show in Minneapolis. Fashion photography took him to Chicago; from there he went to Washington and eventually New York.
The Vogue styles he shot are all passe' now, but in his work for Life Parks went for the real risk, and some of his pictures are disturbingly familiar today when we still have gangs, death rows and slums like the Brazilian favelas he recorded. Voices in the Mirror fleshes out a few well-known images -- Europe after World War II, Egypt's portly, decadent King Farouk, the besieged lovers Bergman and Rossellini. Sugar Ray Robinson and especially Muhammad Ali are seen in detail, up close and sympathetically. And Parks is amusing about the pictures that got away, like his daughter skipping along the deck of a ship between Churchill and Anthony Eden. BUT Parks is at his best in this book as the man who kept his eyes open, who interviewed Elijah Muhammad of the Black Muslims and rode with the Black Panthers. He sifts through his conversations with Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver. He mourns Dr. King. Most affecting is his tender, regretful look at Malcolm X -- who called Parks "sir" before calling him brother, and eventually made him godfather to his daughter.
This responsibility to bear witness kept Parks working for years as the only black man in a white man's business, although he also makes clear that more than once he was the wrong color in the right neighborhood and someone had to know why he'd presumed. But he comes to terms with his ambivalence: "There is nothing ignoble about a black man climbing from the darkness on a white man's ladder, providing he doesn't forsake the others who, subsequently, must escape that same darkness." He could hardly be accused of that.
As if photographs and films weren't enough, Gordon Parks has also written music, and his novel The Learning Tree was followed by 11 other books. Such a life has its price: He writes of his three marriages (and three divorces), "Sometimes I am inclined to think that ambition carved my image out of stone." No doubt there are more complex versions of these relationships than we see in these pages; nevertheless, this is a flesh-and-blood family story, with wives, children, and grandchildren included, all gathered around a man who, it seems, is sometimes called "Pops." Illustrated with 40 photographs, Voices in the Mirror brings Parks's watchful eye to a new generation. Hettie Jones, author of the memoir "How I Became Hettie Jones," is working on a collection of stories.