Gordon Parks Biography


Birthday: November 30, 1912 (Sagittarius)

Born In: Fort Scott, Kansas, United States

Gordon Parks was an American photographer, writer, film director, and musician. He was one of the most celebrated photographers of his time and was known for his remarkably expressive images that explored the impact of racism. He is also remembered for his photographic essays for ‘Life’ magazine and for being the first African American to direct motion pictures on issues faced by black Americans. Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, as the youngest of fifteen kids to a farmer, Parks grew up in poverty at a time when racism and segregation were commonplace. As a child, he was not allowed to attend social activities or play sports in school. His mother died when he was a teen, and he later struggled to survive by working several odd jobs. His rendezvous with photography happened when he saw pictures of migrant workers in a magazine. After purchasing his first camera at a pawnshop and teaching himself how to use it, he was hired by the Farm Security Administration despite his lack of professional training. The multitalented Parks soon became a known photographer and also managed to earn distinction in other fields, including films and music. He also published several books on photography. On a personal note, he was married and divorced three times and had four kids. Parks died of cancer in 2006, at the age of 93.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks

Died At Age: 93


Spouse/Ex-: 1933–1961 - Sally Alvis, 1962–1973 - Elizabeth Campbell, 1973–1979 - Genevieve Young

father: Jackson Parks

mother: Sarah Parks

siblings: Maggie Lee

children: David Parks, Gordon Parks; Jr, Leslie Campbell Parks, Toni Parks-Parsons

Born Country: United States

Directors Black Directors

Died on: March 7, 2006

Cause of Death: Cancer

U.S. State: Kansas, African-American From Kansas

More Facts

awards: NAACP Image Award (2003)
PGA Oscar Micheaux Award (1993)[1] National Medal of Arts (1988)
Spingarn Medal (1972)

Childhood & Early Life
Gordon Parks was born on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, the United States, to Andrew Jackson Parks, a farmer, and Sarah Ross. He had fourteen siblings.
He studied at a segregated elementary school and faced racism throughout his school life. After his mother’s death when was 14, Parks went to live with his sister and brother-in-law just to end up on the streets soon after.
To make both ends meet, he took many odd jobs, including that of a waiter, a bus boy, and a piano player. In 1929, Parks worked in the Minnesota Club.
Continue Reading Below
Photography Career
Gordon Parks kicked off his career with a fashion assignment at a local women's clothing store in Minnesota.
In 1940, he moved to Chicago and started a portrait business. A year later, he was requested to join the Farm Security Administration (FSA). During his time at the FSA, Parks developed one of his best-known photography works, American Gothic, Washington, D.C.
After the FSA disbanded, he worked as a correspondent in the Office of War Information (O.W.I.) where he captured the all-black 332d Fighter Group on his camera.
Following his resignation from the O.W.I., Parks contributed to the Standard Oil Photography Project. During this period, he earned recognition for his most striking works that included 1944’s ‘Dinner Time at Mr. Hercules Brown's Home,’ Somerville, Maine; 1945’s ‘Car Loaded with Furniture on Highway’; and 1946’s Ferry Commuters, Staten Island, N.Y.
He then went on to become a freelance photographer for ‘Vogue’ and published his first two books titled ‘Flash Photography’ and ‘Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture’ during this time.
A 1948 photographic essay on a Harlem gang leader earned him a job as a photographer and writer at USA’s leading photo magazine ‘Life.’ Over the next 20 years, Parks created photographs on several subjects, including poverty, racial segregation, fashion, and sports.
During his tenure at ‘Life,’ he also wrote a few books and was given the “Photographer of the Year” award by the American Society of Magazine Photographers.
Film Career
In the 1950s, Gordon Parks contributed to various Hollywood productions as a consultant. In 1969, he made a film version of his novel ‘The Learning Tree’ that made him Hollywood's first major black director.
In 1971, his directorial career reached new heights with the release of the detective film ‘Shaft’ that eventually spawned a series of movies that would be labelled as “blaxploitation.”
Continue Reading Below
His other directorial credits include the 1974 action-adventure ‘The Super Cops’ and the 1976 biographical ‘Leadbelly’.
Music Career
Gordon Parks had his first job as a piano player when he was a teen. In the early 1930s, his song "No Love" was featured during a national radio broadcast.
In 1953, he composed ‘Concerto for Piano and Orchestra’.
In 1989, he directed and composed a ballet titled ‘Martin’ to honour the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Writing Career
Parks started writing in the late 1940s and went on to write 15 books covering a variety of topics, including poetry and literature.
In the 1960s, he wrote ‘The Learning Tree’ that formed the base for his eponymous film. During the 1970s, he published 'Born Black', 'Flavio', and 'To Smile in Autumn'.
Parks later contributed to the memoirs 'Voices in the Mirror' and 'A Hungry Heart,' which were released in 1990 and 2005, respectively.
Awards & Achievements
Gordon Parks earned over 20 honorary doctorates in his lifetime. In 1970, he was awarded a Doctor of Letters by Kansas State University.
In 1990, Missouri School of Journalism honoured him with the Missouri Honor Medal for his distinguished service to journalism.
Continue Reading Below
Parked also received several other awards and accolades, including the Congress of Racial Equality Lifetime Achievement Award, Kitty Carlisle Hart Award, Spingarn Medal, and a Doctor of Humane Letters by the Art Institute of Boston.
Family & Personal Life
Gordon Parks was married and divorced three times. His first marriage was to Sally Alvis in 1933. After divorcing her in 1961, he married Elizabeth Campbell a year later. The two separated in 1973.
Parks first met Chinese-American journalist Genevieve Young in 1962. They started dating later on and eventually married in 1973. Parks divorced his third wife in 1979. He also had other flings.
Parks had four children: David, Leslie, Toni, and Gordon, Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1979.
Gordon Parks died of cancer on March 7, 2006. He was 93.
The Gordon Parks Museum in Kansas reports that it has dozens of photographs clicked by Gordon Parks. The collection includes personal photos, selected books and articles, awards and medals, paintings, clothing, and much more.
The Gordon Parks Foundation in New York has permanently preserved his works and routinely makes it available to people through exhibitions, electronic media, and books.
The Library of Congress (LOC) has claimed that it acquired his personal collections, including photographs, music, films, recordings, etc. in 1995.
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. has an extensive collection of photographs by Parks.
A print of ’The Learning Tree’ has been preserved in the National Archives of the United States. The organization also has a print of Solomon Nortup's ‘Odyssey,’ a movie created by Parks for a public broadcasting system.

See the events in life of Gordon Parks in Chronological Order

How To Cite

Article Title
- Gordon Parks Biography
- Editors, TheFamousPeople.com
- TheFamousPeople.com

People Also Viewed

Jodie Foster Biography
Jodie Foster
Sylvester Stallone Biography
Sylvester Stallone
Bradley Cooper Biography
Bradley Cooper
Clint Eastwood Biography
Clint Eastwood
Robert De Niro Biography
Robert De Niro
Martin Scorsese Biography
Martin Scorsese
Denzel Washington Biography
Denzel Washington
Ben Affleck Biography
Ben Affleck