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Gordon Parks

A black-and-white portrait of photographer Gordon Parks. The photo is a close-up of his face with a camera on his shoulder.
Gordon Parks. Untitled, 1941. © The Gordon Parks Foundation.
Also known as
Gordon Alexander Buchanan Parks
Date of birth
Date of death

In a career that spanned over 50 years, photographer, filmmaker, musician, and author Gordon Parks created an iconic body of work that documented American life and culture, with a focus on social justice, the civil rights movement, and the African American experience.

Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, as a teenager and began taking fashion photographs for a local clothing store. In 1940, he moved to the South Side of Chicago, where he had a portrait studio at the South Side Community Art Center. A portfolio of images taken in Chicago earned him a prestigious Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowship—the first of the foundation’s grants for African American artists to be awarded to a photographer. In his 1942 application, Parks stated his aim to “sympathetically portray the Negro in his intellectual, professional, educational, social, farm and urban life, constituting thereby, not one strata [sic] of society, but rather a record showing all sides of the life of our people.” That approach would remain a hallmark of his magazine work, his service to the U.S. government, and his later projects in photography and film. 

The Rosenwald award enabled Parks to move to Washington, D.C., for an apprenticeship with the Farm Security Administration. He later became a correspondent for the Office of War Information (OWI). By 1944 he had relocated to New York City, where he was a freelance photographer for publications such as Vogue and Glamour—work that drew attention to him in these almost exclusively white environments. In 1948 Parks worked with author Ralph Ellison on the first of two collaborations, an unpublished essay titled “Harlem is Nowhere.” That project led him to approach Life picture editor Wilson Hicks with a story about Red Jackson, a young black man who led a gang known as the Midtowners. On November 1, 1948 “Harlem Gang Leader” was published in Life and earned Parks a position as staff photographer that he held until the early 1970s. He was the first African American hired by the magazine.

Parks completed several groundbreaking assignments for Life that offered some of the most important documentation of race relations and the civil rights movement. He returned to Chicago twice on such assignments—in 1953 for a never-published story on the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, and in 1963 to document the Black Muslim movement, which was newly headquartered in the city. In 1953, Parks also had a solo exhibition at the Art Institute, which featured 51 of his photographs.

Parks’s career extended beyond photography to encompass filmmaking, music, and writing. In 1969 he became the first African American to write and direct a major feature film, The Learning Tree, based on his semi-autobiographical novel. His next directorial endeavor, Shaft (1971) remains an icon of blaxploitation films. Parks continued photographing, publishing, and composing until his death in 2006. 

At the Art Institute, his work has been featured in the 2016 exhibition Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem, which featured Parks’s collaborations with acclaimed author Ralph Ellison, and the 2018 exhibition Never a Lovely So Real: Photography and Film in Chicago, 1950–1980.

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