Gordon Parks, 1912-2006

Gordon Parks.jpg
Gordon Parks "once took a ride tailed by the cops with some young L.A. [Black] Panthers with guns in their laps," writes Greg Tate in today's Village Voice obituary. "One asked him if he would still choose the camera over the gun, as he'd declared in his 1967 memoir, A Choice of Weapons. Parks reiterated his belief. Two weeks later the Panther was dead." Parks, who was the first black staff photographer at Life in the '50s and the first ever to direct a studio film (The Learning Tree, in 1969), lived life alongside his subjects, from blacks in the Twin Cities to Malcolm X. Born in Kansas in 1912, the future writer, jazz musician, poet, painter, choreographer, and composer moved to St. Paul as a stunned teenager after the death of his mother, according to his autobiography Voices in the Mirror, and was promptly thrown out into the subzero weather by his brother-in-law. He spent a week homeless, "bouncing between Jim Williams's pool hall during the day and the trolley cars at night," writes Michael Tortorello in a 1998 City Pages appreciation. "One morning, hungry and broke, Parks drew a knife on one of the conductors, and then, in shame, offered to sell it to him in exchange for breakfast"...

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."

(View a video at MNStories.com, a discussion at MNSpeak.com, and more Parks photography here, here, and here.)

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