Gordon Parks, 1912-2006
Parks played piano in a local brothel, bused tables at the Minneapolis Club, and reluctantly dropped out of St. Paul Central High School before moving to Chicago, New York, and back again. He was working as a porter on the North Coast Limited in the '30s when he became inspired by the great Depression-era documentary photographers, whose pictures he found in train magazines. Parks invested in a used camera, what he would call "his weapon against poverty and racism," and began taking photographs for the Minneapolis Spokesman/St. Paul Recorder. 50 years of work in a half-dozen mediums followed, though he's still best known for directing Shaft--he once told City Pages it was "nowhere near blaxploitation." (Parks's film biographer, Craig Rice, says he applied to film school the day after seeing the movie.)
"I don't make my poetry or my music just for people in Harlem or Kansas or any one place in between," Parks told Rob Nelson in a 1996 City Pages interview. "I think it's about reaching as many kinds of people as you can." He stayed prolific to the end, publishing two books on Atria in 2005: A Hungry Heart : A Memoir and Eyes with Winged Thoughts: Poems and Photographs. He died last Tuesday at age 93 in New York. (Read the New York Times obituary and the one in the Kansas City Star.)
In an interview with the Spokesman-Recorder last year, Parks said: "I let my heart persuade me toward whatever I needed at the moment; that's where I went. That's why I was successful, or why I failed."