Gordon Parks, the great African-American photojournalist best known for his 1963 photograph of Ethel Shariff, daughter of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and of a boy named Flavio da Silva from the slums of Brazil in 1961, died yesterday at the age of 93, according to family members.
Parks was the first Black photographer to work for Life magazine, exploring subjects like injustice, poverty in the U.S. as well as in Brazil and Portugal, gang violence, the civil rights movement, and segregation in the Deep South. After he bought his first camera, he said that it became his weapon against poverty and racism. He also worked at Vogue magazine in Paris for many years.
“Gordon was one of the magazine’s most accomplished shooters and one of the very greatest American photographers of the 20th century,” said Life’s managing editor, Bill Shapiro. “He moved as easily among the glamorous figures of Hollywood and Paris as he did among the poor in Brazil and the powerful in Washington.”
Parks’ first photography assignment came in 1941 when he went to work with Roy Stryker of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) after receiving a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. The purpose of the FSA was to highlight the lives of poor Americans during the Depression. Through this project he produced the signature photo “American Gothic.”
However, Parks, a high-school dropout who went on to receive 45 doctorate degrees, was more than a photographer. He directed “The Learning Tree” in 1963 and the popular movie “Shaft” in 1971, which was the catalyst for many more “blaxploitation” films. He penned over 14 books including “Arias in Silence” and “Glimpses Toward Infinity.” He also composed the musical composition “Martin,” a ballet about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Parks was born on November 30, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kan. and was the youngest of 15 children. He came from poor beginnings, but he never underestimated his talent or the talent of others.
“I think most people can do a whole awful lot more if they just try,” Parks told The Associated Press in 2000. “They just don’t have the confidence that they can write a novel or they can write poetry or they can take pictures or paint or whatever, and so they don’t do it, and they leave the planet dissatisfied with themselves.”