Happy Black History Month! This is the 12th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known Black Americans who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).
The focus of today’s blog is Gordon Parks, the first Black staff member at LIFE Magazine as well as the first Black director of a major film, Shaft.
This is his story.
According to gordonparksfoundation.org, Gordon Parks was born in the impoverished and segregated community of Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912. As a boy, he encountered several photos of migrant workers in a magazine. After seeing those, he knew he wanted to get a camera. He bought his first camera at a pawnshop and learned how to use it on his own. Later, he said, “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera” (gordonparksfoundation.org).
First Photography Position
In 1942, Parks won the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for his photography. This landed him his first photography role with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington D.C. Through this position and his next position with the Office of War Information, Parks developed a creative style that no one else had. He focused his work on capturing the impact of social issues such as poverty and racism. This is where his passion lay.
First Black staff member at LIFE Magazine
In 1944, Parks left the OWI job for a position with the Standard Oil Company’s documentary project. At the same time, Parks also worked as a freelance photographer for magazines Ebony and Glamour. His 1948 photo essay illustrating the life of a Harlem gang leader gained a lot of public attention. Eventually, this acclaim landed him a position at LIFE Magazine, making him the first Black staff member at LIFE.
Activism in Photography
For the next 20 years, Parks worked for LIFE writing and documenting stories on many topics including racial injustice and poverty but also entertainment and fashion. Through his work, he was able to meet and photograph many civil rights leaders including Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and Muhammed Ali. Led by an activist’s passion, his work helped gain support for the civil rights movement.
Artistry Beyond Photography
Beyond photography, Parks explored his creativity with other forms of art including writing, poetry, painting, musical composition, and filmmaking. During this time, Parks became the first Black person to direct a major Hollywood film, Shaft, in 1971. He published novels, poetry, and several books on photographic stylings. Additionally, he composed the music for a ballet called Martin and dedicated it to the late Martin Luther King Jr. in 1989.
Over his lifetime, Parks earned many awards and honors, including the National Medal of Arts in 1988 and over 50 other honorary doctorates. Although Parks passed in 2006, his work remains on display in museums all across the country. The Gordon Parks Foundation, which Parks himself set up before he passed at the age of 93, preserved his life’s work. You can find this collection and read more about Gordon Parks here.
Read another article from the “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know” blog series here.