Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks (November 30, 1912 – March 7, 2006) was an American photographer, musician, composer, writer, poet and film director, who became prominent in U.S. documentary photojournalism in the 1940s through 1970s and in glamour photography.
Parks was the first African American to produce and direct major motion pictures, and best remembered for his iconic photos of poor Americans during the 1940s and for his photographic essays for Life magazine, and as the director of the 1971 film Shaft.
Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas on November 30, 1912, the youngest of fifteen children. His father was a farmer. His mother died when he was fourteen. He spent his last night at the family home sleeping beside his mother's coffin, seeking not only solace, but a way to face his own fear of death.
At age 15, he started to work in brothels as a singer, piano player, and many other random jobs to survive.
In 1929, he briefly worked in a gentlemen's club, where he was able to read many books from the club library. When the Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought an end to the club, he jumped on a train to Chicago, where he managed to land a job in a flophouse.
A few years later, in 1933, he married his first wife Sally Alvis.
At the age of 25, Parks was struck by photographs of migrant workers in a magazine. He bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brillant, for $7.50 at a Seattle, Washington, pawnshop and taught himself how to take photos. The photography clerks who developed Parks's first roll of film applauded his work and prompted him to seek a fashion assignment at a women's clothing store in St. Paul, Minnesota, owned by Frank Murphy. Those photographs caught the eye of Marva Louis, wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. She encouraged Parks and his wife, Sally Alvis, to move to Chicago in 1940, where he began a portrait business and specialized in photographs of society women.
Over the next few years, Parks moved from job to job, developing a freelance portrait and fashion photographer sideline.
Following his resignation from the Office of War Information, Parks moved to Harlem and became a freelance fashion photographer for Vogue under the editorship of Alexander Liberman. Despite racist attitudes of the day, Vogue editor Liberman, hired him to shoot a collection of evening gowns. Parks photographed fashion for Vogue for the next few years and he developed the distinctive style of photographing his models in motion rather than in static poses. During this time, he published his first two books, Flash Photography (1947) and Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture (1948).
A 1948 photographic essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with America's leading photo-magazine, Life. His involvement with Life would last until 1972.
In 1961, Parks and his wife Sally Alcoa divorced.
In 1962, he married Elizabeth Campbell, daughter of cartoonist E. Simms Campbell.
During his years with Life, Parks wrote a few books on the subject of photography (particularly documentary photography), as well as several books of poetry, which he illustrated with his own photographs. He also wrote The Learning Tree (1963), a semi-autobiographical novel, followed by his first memoir A Choice of Weapons (1966)
For over 20 years, Parks produced photographs on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway, poverty, and racial segregation, as well as portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, and Barbra Streisand. He became "one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States.". And in 1960 he was named Photographer of the Year by the American Society of Magazine Photographers.
In 1969 with his film adaptation of The Learning Tree for Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, Parks became Hollywood's first major black director. Parks wrote the screenplay himself and composed the musical score for the film, with assistance from his friend, the composer Henry Brant.
Shaft, a 1971 detective film directed by Parks became a major hit. He then directed the 1972 sequel, Shaft's Big Score.
In 1973, Parks and his second wife Elizabeth Campbell divorced, and he married Chinese-American Genevieve whom he met in 1962 when he began writing The Learning Tree, as his book editor.
The couple divorced in 1979.
For many years, Parks was romantically involved with Gloria Vanderbilt, the railroad heiress and designer. Their relationship evolved into a deep friendship that endured throughout his lifetime.
1990, Parks published his second volume memoir: Voices in the Mirror, and 15 years later, he wrote his third and last memoir A Hungry Heart in 2005.
Gordon Parks died in March 7, 2006.