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Gordon Parks: The life and times of an extraordinary pioneer

One of the towering visual artists of the 20th century, very few Black icons have contributed as much as Gordon Parks did over the course of his eventful career. Now remembered as the pioneer behind the incredibly popular Blaxploitation genre, Parks managed to translate the Black experience to the visual medium in a way that nobody had done before him.

Born in Kansas in 1912, Parks grew up in the segregated South and experienced extreme prejudice and injustice. Just like other Black intellectuals of the time, he was mocked and discouraged by his teachers when he told them that he wanted to continue his education by attending college. Parks was bullied by white children and after the death of his mother, he found himself on the streets in order to survive.

In an interview, Parks recalled the things he had to do to earn a livelihood and buy himself food and lodging at the young age of 15. “I played piano at a whorehouse,” Parks revealed. “I played – later played professional basketball. I played with an orchestra. I did a lot of things. I was a janitor, the young janitor at a flophouse in Chicago. I did a lot of things to survive”.

Park’s passion for photography bloomed much later in his life when he chanced upon pictures of migrant workers and the documentary works by legends such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. These moved him so much that he ended up rushing to a pawnshop in Seattle and purchasing a camera for $7.50 to start his own experiments.

More importantly, there was one thing that Parks wanted to document more than anything else and that was the answer to the question – what does it mean to be Black in America? Parks said: “What I saw there let me know that I could use the camera, as well, that as the way – they had used it against poverty, that I could use it, too, against poverty and discrimination and the intolerance I had suffered as a Black man in America”.

Through iconic photographs such as the American Gothic, Washington, D.C, Parks was communicating with the larger Black community at a spiritual level and also informing future generations of the horrors of living in segregated America. Described as “one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States,” Parks wielded his camera as a weapon that lashed out systemic problems that subjugated marginalised groups in a place that was claimed by many to be the greatest country on the planet.

One of the most fascinating elements about the works of Gordon Parks is his ability to assimilate tiny, humanistic details from stories that are often ignored into the larger political frameworks that facilitated the machinations of the Jim Crow South. Ranging from fashion and sports to portraits of leaders like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, Parks captured it all with his camera.

He also made a significant impact on the world of cinema with his 1971 masterpiece Shaft, a highly entertaining detective film about Black masculinity and Black power which would go on to spawn the Blaxploitation genre and would continue to inspire other Black filmmakers in the future. Parks continued his directorial career with other projects in the future but none of them managed to achieve as much as Shaft.

Even after all these years, Parks is seen as an idol by aspiring photojournalists and filmmakers who come from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds. He reflected: “I was just a young kid. I saw all this. I could have been scarred for life, you know? And – but I didn’t let it get to me for some reason or another. But I was terribly frightened of death until I was almost a man.”

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