A Final Snapshot of Gordon Parks

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In one of his several volumes of published memoirs, Gordon Parks once wrote that "I still don't know exactly who I am. I've disappeared into myself so many different ways that I don't know who 'me' is." "Disappeared'' is not a word most people would use to describe a man who spent decades as a very visible artist and trail blazer, but the part about "many different ways" rings true. By the time he died this week at his home in New York City, Parks, who was 93, had made his triumphant way through a succession of fields — photographer, writer, film director — and left behind enduring work in every one.

So it's important to keep in mind that the novelist who wrote The Learning Tree (and directed the film version) was also the composer of film scores and concertos, and that the poet was also the man who directed Shaft. (And, let us not forget, its sequel, Shaft's Big Score!) But it's always as a pioneering photographer that Parks will be remembered first. Especially during his 24 years at LIFE magazine, where he was the first African-American on its legendary globe-trotting photo staff, he could shoot a Brazilian slum, a civil rights march or a Paris fashion show with the same sure mastery. Above all, he made countless pictures of the glories and burdens of African-American life at a time when an unapologetic white racism was the rule, and sometimes the law, in places all around the country.

He could make those pictures because he possessed not only an alert eye but also an experienced heart — he knew what racism and poverty were about. Parks was the son of a poor tenant farmer in Kansas. After his mother died, he was sent to St. Paul, Minn., to live with relatives but was soon turned out of their house. His high school was the streets. He was working as a railway car waiter in the 1930s when he picked up a magazine left behind by a passenger and had his first look at the indelible images of Depression-era America made by Dorothea Lange and other photographers for the Farm Security Administration, the FSA. By that time he had already been a semi-pro basketball player and a pianist in a brothel, so he was not a man averse to trying his hand at just about anything. Within a few years he had bought his first camera and was embarked on a new career making portraits of black women and fashion shots for a St. Louis department store. By 1942 he was in Washington, D.C. — as an FSA photographer.

On his first day there Parks was refused service at a clothing store, a movie theater and a restaurant because he was black. He channeled his anger and frustration into his first famous photograph, made the same day. American Gothic, as he called it, is a portrait of a black cleaning woman holding a mop and a broom in front of an American flag, with her solemn expression saying worlds about the limits that she — and he — ran up against every day. Parks would always carry with him the lesson of that picture. He applied it magnificently. His photographs, his books, his movies and his music are the work of a man who blew away those limits all his life.