The images of Gordon Parks flash across the years.
The thin, ramrod black woman, mop and broom in hand, standing in front of the American flag. The farmland and the farmers. The Harlem gang leader staring above a cracked windowpane. The marshals crashing through a door. The junkie shooting up. A Brazilian youth left to die in a hallway. Muhammad Ali draped in crystals of sweat. The Parisian model swirling in tangerine chiffon.
In his photographs as in his life, the strains of sharp adversity and sharp success dominate. But the master photographer, accomplished filmmaker, writer and composer, at nearly 66, has reached the enviable state of having the bankbook and leisure to pick and choose his next directions, though it is not a phase free of difficulty.
Yesterday, as Parks sat in a Washington television studio, an interviewer called him a "genius," rapidly listing his accomplishments. His walnut skin glowed slightly and the signature mustache hid any movement of his lips, but the shift of his trim body signaled his discomfort. He laughed it off.
"Well, I haven't done too well in my marriages. I have had three," he replied, his laugh actually a rumble, like the steamy reverberation of the trains he worked on as a teen-ager.
For more than 20 years, he worked for Life magazine and with the magaine's recent rebirth, Parks has been summoned to do three stories a year.
"I got into photography to say what was right and wrong about America, the world, life," says Parks. "I still feel I have an obligation every now and then to pick up my camera to correct a wrong. But now I am more prepared to be creative, I know what's important, technically.
"Now I am free to create because I am free of struggle for recognition, as long as I don't become soft with success." And the look from a man who has been a window on the world for many people is stern, a self-admonishment.
Revving up, not slacking off, seems to be the Parks way. As he talks, he becomes so engrossed that he repeatedly allows the Marlboro dangling out of his mouth to turn to ash. Besides a Life assignment on three black New York designers he just completed, Parks is directing a film starring Dina Merrill with a screenplay he adapted himself, is finishing a novel, the third installment of his autobiography and a musical composition "For cello and orchestra."
His status as a filmmaker brought him to Washington yesterday. In 1969 Parks became the first black to direct a major studio production, "The Learning Tree," based on his first autobiography, and the second of his five films, "Shaft," opened up a wave of black films and helped save the M-G-M studios
Following a screening of his last film, "Leadbelly," last night, Parks spoke to the University of the District of Columbia's Black Film Institute. "Leadbelly," the life story of blues composer-singer Huddie Ledbetter, did better with the critics than with the box office, but now is a campus cult film. "Paramount didn't promote it. Basically because the personnel changed at the top. I really don't want to open up old sores," says Parks.
But slowly the story comes out, how he fought for its release, how he found it playing in a porno theater in San Francisco. "At that time I was terribly discouraged. Now I can say it was one of those things that happen in Hollywood," says Parks. "I'm not mad at Hollywood per se. Tomorrow I can be embittered with Life magazine though it did so much for me, tomorrow I can be embittered with me for doing something stupid. At the time seven other films at Paramount went down the drain. At least people know mine is alive."
The youngest of 15 children, Parks grew up on a farm in Fort Scott, Kan. When he was 16, his mother died and he went to live with a sister in St. Paul, Minn. One night his brother-in-law threw him out into the 31 degrees below zero weather. Parks lived on streetcars for several days and then worked as a waiter, porter, janitor, basketball player, dope runner and musician. "People often ask, given the choice of growing up a well-bred white boy bound for Yale and groomed to be a physician, wouldn't you rather have that? I say, in spite of the bruises, the scars, the brutality, I wouldn't have it any other way," says Parks.
While he was a dining car steward on the North Coast Limited run between St. Paul and Seattle, he saw a film by Norman Alley of the Japanese bombing of an American warship. He decided to buy a camera and found a Voightlander Brilliant for $12.50 in a Seattle pawnshop.
That was 1937 and five years later he received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship and started studying with Roy Stryker at the FSA. Washington was harsh - the government cafeterias were segregated, Garfinckel's refused to sell him a camel coat - but he found artistic inspiration. "Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, John Vachon and Russell Lee were all inspirations," he says.
Before the end of the decade he was working full-time for the showcase of photojournalists, Life. "When I first went I was the worst photographer they had. All the guys helped me. I was trying to be a good photographer and working under tremendous pressure. The whites were wondering why I was there, the blacks wondering if I was going to ruin the magazine," says Parks, quick enough to hide any lingering emotions. "At times I had a great sense of loneliness."
In his career Parks has been an observer and companion of a spectrum of personalities - from the Diors and Chanels of Paris fashion houses to the mass organizers of the 1960s: Malcolm X, Stokeley Carmichael and Martin Luther King Jr. And as he writes his next book, "Roses and Thorns," he thinks about novelist Richard Wright.
"When I moved to Paris, Wright said, 'let's go to lunch.' So knowing Richard I thought it would be the Left Bank and a bottle of wine. When I picked him up, he said, 'I know you will think I am crazy but let's go to Maxim's.' And we did: they laid on the service'" says Parks, chuckling. "But later, (discussing writing) over that bottle of wine, he said, 'never be afraid to tell the truth.' That was what he always said, 'Have courage in whatever you believe in.' There are times now when the publishers look at something and say, 'You aren't going to tell that, are you?' And I say, 'If you can't speak the truth, then what good has it all been?'"