Behind the Lens: Gordon Parks

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from the Museum of Fine Arts which caused a huge grin to rush across my face. It read:

It may be cold outside—but not inside the MFA! The new year brings a slew of new art, exhubitions, lectures, and courses to cozy up to this moth. Discover how a celebrated African American photographer…

I did not even have to read the entire e-mail. Gordon Parks’ work is coming to the MFA! I originally planned to visit the exhibit Back to Fort Scott on Friday before seeing Selma; however, I looked at the hours on the museum’s website and notice the exhibit is not on display until January 17th. For now, I will write a post one of my favorite photographer, Gordon Parks, the man behind the lens.

Gordon-Parks-Portrait-by-Toni-Parks-Parsons (2)

November 12, 1912-March 7, 2006
Image Source

I first encounter Parks’ work, specifically Gordon Parks: Segregation Story, while watching a documentary on PBS. Segregation in color is what I remember. Throughout my readings and education, segregation was always presented in black and white, unless it was a modern day film about the past. Through Parks, it was viewable for me through color.


Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1958


Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1958

Parks was born on November 30, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas to farmers, sharecroppers, perhaps. Due to his town’s inability to fund a segregated high school for blacks, Parks was unable to receive an education, yet he rose to become an activist, film maker, writer, and renowned photographer. His love for photography was birthed as a young man when he encountered images of migrant workers published in a magazine. Purchasing his first camera in 1938 from a pawnshop, Parks became a self-taught photographer obtaining a job with the Farm Security Administration. In this role, he documented the nation’s social and economic conditions. He developed his own unique style ensuring him a legacy that broke color barriers and exceeded his death. His greatest work was accomplished by creating images that captured the social impact of racism in America.

Parks first recognized work was with Life, a promenient photo journal magazine, through a photo essay of a Harlem gang leader. His position as staff photographer with this magazine was the first for any African American. He served in this position for two decades documenting racism, poverty, and black leaders and celebrities through his lens.

In the span of his life, Parks gained over fifty honorary doctorates, the National Medal of Arts, and numerous other awards, yet he was not only a renowned photographer. Parks was also a composer, author, and the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film based on his novel The Learning Tree (I will be purchasing this book soon). He also directed Shaft, “…you dammnnn right!”, in 1971 and ladies, he co-founded Essence magazine. No other words or accomplishments need to be written, Parks was simply an incredible man.

If you live in the Boston area, I encourage you to view Parks’ exhibit this month. If not, check out the Gordon Parks Foundation to view his exhibits.

Until the next post,


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