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Gordon Parks: An American Photographer and Film Director

Closeup of Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks (November 30, 1912 – March 7, 2006) was a legendary photographer and film director who is widely considered one of the most important figures in 20th-century photography. Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1912, Parks rose to prominence as a pioneering photojournalist who captured the lives and struggles of African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s. He went on to become the first African American photographer for Life magazine and the first African American to direct a major Hollywood film.


Early Life and Career

Gordon Parks was born on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas. He was the youngest of 15 children born to Andrew Jackson Parks and Sarah Levy Parks. Growing up, Parks was exposed to poverty and racism, experiences that would later shape his work as a photographer.

Parks first developed an interest in photography in the 1930s, when he worked as a porter on the trains of the Great Northern Railway. During his travels, he saw the inequalities of the world and was inspired to document what he saw through his camera. He saved up enough money to buy his first camera and began taking photographs of people he met on his travels.

In 1942, Parks moved to Washington, D.C., where he began working as a freelance photographer for the Office of War Information. He later became a photographer for the Farm Security Administration and was one of the few photographers to document the lives of African Americans during the 1940s and 1950s. His photographs were published in magazines such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Life.

Success as a Photojournalist

A black woman holding a broom in one hand and a mop in the other. Behind her is the American Flag.

In 1948, Parks became the first African American photographer for Life magazine. He was known for his bold, powerful images that captured the struggles and triumphs of African Americans. He also became a sought-after portrait photographer, capturing the likenesses of famous figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Parks was also a pioneering photojournalist, documenting the lives of people living in poverty, both in the United States and abroad. He covered a wide range of subjects, including poverty in the United States, segregation in the South, and the Civil Rights Movement. His photographs captured the essence of his subjects, revealing their humanity and dignity despite their difficult circumstances.

Film Career and Legacy

In addition to his work as a photographer, Parks also had a successful career as a film director. He directed several films, including the 1971 film "Shaft," which was the first major Hollywood film directed by an African American. Parks' film career was a testament to his versatility and creativity, and he was widely recognized for his contributions to the film industry..

What other projects was Gordon Parks involved in? 

Throughout his career, Gordon Parks was involved in a wide range of projects, including photography, film, music, and writing. He photographed for Life magazine for over two decades, capturing powerful images of poverty, racism, and segregation in America. He also directed several films, including the critically acclaimed "The Learning Tree." In addition to his photography and film work, Parks was also a talented musician and composer, having written scores for several of his films. He was also an accomplished writer, having published several books, including an autobiography and a novel.

How has Gordon Parks' legacy impacted the world?Gordon Parks' legacy has had a profound impact on the world. His work has inspired countless photographers, filmmakers, and artists, and his commitment to capturing the struggles and triumphs of African Americans has helped to bring attention to important social issues. His work has been recognized by numerous organizations and institutions, and his photographs and films continue to be displayed and studied around the world. Parks' legacy continues to live on through the numerous exhibitions, books, and films that showcase his work.


Gordon Parks was a visionary photographer and film director who used his camera to document the lives and struggles of African Americans. He was a pioneer in the field of photojournalism and a trailblazer in the film industry. His powerful images and innovative films continue to inspire and influence new generations of artists, and his legacy will continue to live on for generations to come.

You can find Gordon Park prints here.

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