How Gordon Parks Became Gordon Parks

A new book examines Gordon Parks’s transformation over the formative decade before his time as the first black staff photographer at Life magazine.

Self-Portrait, 1941.CreditCreditCourtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation

By James Estrin


At the beginning of the 1940s, Gordon Parks was a self-taught fashion and portrait photographer documenting daily life in both St. Paul and Chicago. By the end of the decade he was photographing for Life magazine. While his career has been examined closely, both in his own words and by others, this formative decade has attracted less attention than his experiences as the first black staff photographer at Life, and later as a groundbreaking Hollywood filmmaker.

A new book, “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950,” published by the National Gallery of Art, The Gordon Parks Foundation and Steidl, examines this transformation. It is timed to accompany the exhibit of the same name at the National Gallery from Nov. 4, 2018, to Feb. 18, 2019. The exhibit was curated by Philip Brookman, who is also the book’s author. The book features photographs that have never before been published, as well as additional essays by Sarah Lewis, Deborah Willis, Richard J. Powell and Maurice Berger, who writes the Race Stories column for Lens.

Ms. Willis, who is a noted photographer, author and the chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, knew Mr. Parks well. She spoke with James Estrin about Mr. Parks, and their conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The book and the exhibition cover Gordon’s work photographing for the Farm Security Administration, the Office of War Information and Standard Oil as well as his time in Chicago and St. Paul in the beginning of the ‘40s. It’s an incredible leap from 1940 to 1950. How do you think the 1940s shaped him as a photographer?

I was really excited that Philip Brookman focused on the first 10 years.

While writing that essay I had an opportunity to go back into some of the work I only knew peripherally, and what excited me was the Smart Woman magazine that he worked on as a photo editor. I started looking at the black middle class of Chicago that he photographed but no one knew about. He focused on fashion in Chicago, of course in St. Paul, but he was very active with the black press during that time, very interested in black migration from the South to the Midwest and the North. But he was focusing on who was living there and what opportunities black people had who were artistic, who had businesses, who were educated. It is a totally different realm than what he focused on in D.C. So that early part was crucial for my reintroduction to Gordon’s work.

Drug store “’cowboys.”“ Black Diamond, Alberta, Canada. September 1945. Credit Courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation
In the Frederick Douglass Housing Project in In Anacostia, Washington D.C., a family says grace before their evening meal. June 1942. Credit Courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation
Dinner time at Mr. Hercules Brown’•s home in Somerville, Maine, 1944Credit Courtesy of the Gordon Parks Foundation

What I find extraordinary is his range and he did all of these different things during this period.

And within different communities, Gordon was comfortable with knowing — and making different images about different communities. He understood what it meant to be an American in different forms and different ways. At the black newspaper that he worked at in St. Paul, he demanded a byline. He understood what it meant to have his name imprinted on the newspaper when he was making photographs of gorgeous ladies, college students, women who wanted to be models. He’s actually part of their dream. He’s documenting their dreaming of their lives outside of domestic work — opportunities that were broader.

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