Esteemed photographer, filmmaker, and author Gordon Parks is being awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award tonight for exemplifying what lifetime achievement truly means. Born into poverty in a segregated society in 1912, Parks transcended his circumstances to become an award-winning photographer, writer, and filmmaker. He has won over 200 awards, has 56 doctorates, and has published over 18 books.
Parks’s life has been filled with firsts. Not only was he the first African-American photographer to work at Life and Vogue magazines, but Parks was also the first African-American to write, direct and produce a film for a major motion picture company. His film “The Learning Tree” was among the 25 films placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1989.
Rising above his first job playing piano in a brothel, Parks became a composer and traveled with a band. Eventually he became a waiter on a transcontinental train, where he was introduced to photography while leafing through a magazine a passenger had left behind. He then bought his first camera, a $7.50 Voighlender Brilliant. “I bought what was to become my weapon against poverty and racism,” he says.
In 1941, Parks became the first photographer to recive a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation and then worked with Roy Stryker in the photography section of the Farm Security Administration, a government agency set up to call attention to the troubles of the needy during the Depression.
It was at the FSA in Washington, D.C., where Parks took his first professional photograph, and signature image: “American Gothic.” “It happened in one of the government’s most sacred strongholds. I set up my camera for my first professional photograph and asked Ella [Watson] to stand before the American flag hanging from floor to ceiling, placed the mop in her one hand, a broom in the other, then instructed her to look into the lens,” Parks says. From that point on, Parks worked tirelessly to cover the major themes, issues, and events of each decade for LIFE magazine: social injustice, overwhelming poverty in the U.S., Brazil and Portugal, gang violence, the Civil Rights movement, and segregation in the Deep South.
He has taken portraits photographs of the leading figures of his time, including Muhammad Ali, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and Ingrid Bergman, among many others, In addition to his photography, Parks is an established author who has published several books which combine photographs and poems. Parks also served as a consultant to several Hollywood films, and produced several of his own projects, including “Flavio, Diary of a Harlem Family,” “Mean Streets,” “The Learning Tree,” “Shaft,” and “Shaft’s Big Score,” among others.
The numerous awards for his work include twice being named Photographer of the Year by the American Society of Magazine Photographers, receiving an Emmy Award for best TV documentary, a Notable Book Award from the American Library Association for “A Choice of Weapons,” and the Nikon Photographic Award for the promotion of understanding among nations of the world.