Gordon Parks: American photographer and activist

Gordon Parks (1912–2006) was a seminal figure of twentieth century photography. A humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice, he left behind a body of work that documents many of the most important aspects of American culture from the early 1940s up until his death in 2006, with a focus on race relations, poverty, civil rights, and urban life.

 Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956.   Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta and Arnika Dawkins Gallery. © The Gordon Parks Foundation 

Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956. 
Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta and Arnika Dawkins Gallery. © The Gordon Parks Foundation 

Born into poverty and segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912, Parks was drawn to photography as a young man when he saw images of migrant workers published in a magazine. After buying a camera at a pawnshop, he taught himself how to use it and -- despite his lack of professional training -- he found employment with the Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.), which was then chronicling the nation’s social conditions.

 American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942

American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942

Parks quickly developed a style that would make him one of the most celebrated photographers of his age, allowing him to break the color line in professional photography while creating remarkably expressive images that consistently explored the social and economic impact of racism. 

When the F.S.A. closed in 1943, Parks became a freelance photographer, balancing work for fashion magazines with his passion for documenting humanitarian issues. His 1948 photo essay on the life of a Harlem gang leader won him widespread acclaim and a position as the first African American staff photographer and writer for Life Magazine, then by far the most prominent photojournalist publication in the world.

Parks would remain at Life for two decades, chronicling subjects related to racism and poverty, as well as taking memorable pictures of celebrities and politicians (including Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael). His most famous images, such as Emerging Man (1952) and American Gothic (1942) capture the essence of activism and humanitarianism in mid-twentieth century America and have become iconic images, defining their era for later generations. They also rallied support for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, for which Parks himself was a tireless advocate as well as a documentarian.

 Black Panther Members at Chapter Headquarters, San Francisco, 1969.

Black Panther Members at Chapter Headquarters, San Francisco, 1969.

In 1950, Parks returned to his hometown in Kansas to make a series of photographs meant to accompany an article that he planned to call “Back to Fort Scott.” Fort Scott was the town that he had left more than 20 years earlier, when after his mother died, he found himself—a teenager and the youngest of 15 children—suddenly having to make his own way in the world. He used this assignment to revisit early memories of his birthplace, many involving serious racial discrimination, and to reconnect with childhood friends, all of whom had attended the same all-black grade school as Parks.

 Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning, Detroit, Michigan, 1950. Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning, Detroit, Michigan, 1950.
Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.

One of the most visually rich and captivating of all his projects, Parks’s photographs, now owned by The Gordon Parks Foundation, were slated to appear in April 1951, but the photo essay was never published. This exhibition represents a rarely seen view of everyday lives of African American citizens, years before the Civil Rights movement began in earnest, and is currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

For additional images, visit the Gordon Parks Foundation Archives