The Greats: How Gordon Parks Used Photography as a Force for Change

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Growing up in a segregated Kansas amid intense racial divides that plagued the United States in the early 20th-century, Gordon Parks overcame incredible hurdles on his way to becoming one of the era’s landmark photographers. 

Words by Hudson Brown

Photography by Gordon Parks

Born in 1912, Gordon Parks grew up surrounded by racism and inequality. As a young Black man without a high school degree, he stayed off the streets by finding work as a piano player, a waiter and even as a semi-professional basketball player. But at the age of 25, his interest in photography dramatically increased when a colleague handed him a magazine with a photo essay on Dust Bowl migrant workers.

Featuring images by the likes of Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein, Parks recognised how photography could be used to not only shine a light on unseen people and places but voice his own frustrations with the world. On reflection in 1999, Parks said: “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs…I knew at that point I had to have a camera.” 

Working as a waiter on a railroad car that travelled between Chicago and Seattle, Parks would spend layovers visiting art galleries and cinemas. Alongside his earlier exposure to documentary photography, he was convinced to purchase a camera when he headed to a theatre to watch newsreel footage of the Japanese bombing of the USS Panay – a major event in the lead up to WWII. Having seen the rousing reception the photographer received, he decided to go straight to a nearby pawnshop. Despite not knowing how to load the film, he left with a second-hand Voigtländer Brilliant and set about teaching himself the craft.

Encouraged by his local darkroom’s staff, he gained a foothold in the industry by working as a fashion photographer for a high-end boutique. But he would continue to develop his skills and never limited himself to one subject, style or medium – as he overcame the odds to establish himself as a visionary photojournalist.

I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs.”

How Gordon Parks Provided A Critical Voice In American Media

For the next two years, Parks built his freelance career as he moved to Chicago to present a series of solo exhibitions and embark on his earliest newspaper commissions. Having been awarded a fellowship for images depicting Chicago’s disenfranchised South Side, Parks’ life underwent a major turning point as he joined the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The organisation’s small but dedicated team had a mission to draw attention to impoverished rural communities across America.

Learning from other FSA photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, Parks took an assignment in Washington DC to depict the social and professional lives of Black Americans. After his time in the capital was marred by several racist encounters, like being denied entry into department stores, restaurants and theatres, he channelled this anger into finding a story that exposed the realities of the ‘American Dream’.

This search ended with Ella Watson, a government building cleaner who had faced extraordinary hardship throughout her life. For perhaps his most influential image, ‘American Gothic’, Parks posed Watson like the namesake painting in a dignified manner that also highlighted the extreme inequalities existing within American society. As Parks explained: “What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it.”

Although the FSA disbanded with the onset of WWII, Parks continued to develop his eye for photojournalism. A highly successful freelance story on Harlem’s gang violence in the late 1940s helped him become Life Magazine’s first African-American staff photographer, where he stayed for the next 20 years. Like many of the great Depression-era photographers, Parks drew on his own life experiences to create work that passionately advocated for change, with his striking visual metaphors focused on society’s most downtrodden people.

'American Gothic' by Gordon Parks.

Everyone must face the problems of humanity. My way of facing these issues is through photography.”

At Life, Parks realised he had a platform to draw significant attention to societal issues the publication’s predominately white and middle-class readership knew very little about. He captured vivid images of segregation in Alabama, while he also gained unprecedented access to the growing civil rights movement, including elusive leaders like Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. Parks also continued his interest in fashion and celebrity, becoming one of the most sought-after portrait photographers and working alongside Muhammad Ali, Gloria Vanderbilt, Alberto Giacometti and Marilyn Monroe, among many others.

Parks’ photography played a central role in capturing the growing civil rights movement and spreading it across the mainstream. Meanwhile, his incredible success broke down barriers for future influential Black creatives like John Singleton and Spike Lee. As Parks said in 1961: “Everyone must face the problems of humanity. My way of facing these issues is through photography. It is important because it can show, without needing words, everything that is wrong and can be improved.”

How to Shoot Photojournalism Like Gordon Parks

Once you’ve taken a moment to admire the brilliance of Gordon Parks’ photography, consider some of these simple tips to use photography as a force for good.

GET TO KNOW YOUR SUBJECTS

Parks gained access to a wealth of incredible stories simply by getting to know his subjects. For his renowned series, A Harlem Family, he spent a week with the Fontenelles family without his camera. It was only after he’d been accepted into their family that he began documenting their impoverished existence over the next month. Building these kinds of relationships is vital to high-quality photojournalism, as you gain insight into the emotions of your subject and reflect that connection in your imagery.

“It’s important that I let the world know what they are thinking and what they are going through.”

CAPTURE WHAT YOU KNOW & CARE ABOUT

Part of what made Parks’ photography so special was his sincere understanding of the issues he covered. Having emerged from a desolate upbringing in a segregated America, his images always conveyed a sense of empathy for those suffering from racism, bigotry and poverty. Your background might be vastly different from Parks’, but you can use your experiences to inform your work and make it more powerful.

BE AN ADVOCATE FOR CHANGE

Although Parks’ images are elegantly composed and beautiful to look at, there’s a consistent undercurrent of advocacy running through his work. Bringing issues into the public eye, many of his stories attracted huge attention and fundraising, changing many of his subjects’ lives. As Parks said: “I see a poor child, a distraught mother; it’s not important in that particular moment that I express my feelings, but it’s important that I let the world know what they are thinking and what they are going through…And so I become an instrument for them. I think that’s what the camera does. It serves a purpose.”

SHOOT WITHOUT LIMITATIONS

Parks never felt the need to focus on only a single aspect of photography. To overcome many of the barriers he faced, he developed skills across studio work, environmental portraits, fashion photography and documentary storytelling. Meanwhile, he was also a master of both colour and black-and-white photography. Don’t be afraid to branch out into different styles and topics as you’ll find unexpected sources of inspiration.

CONVEY THE EMOTIONS OF YOUR SUBJECTS

Across all of Parks’ work, he always tries to convey the character of the person he’s shooting. By focusing on what makes a person unique, you can capture compelling images that reflect their true essence.

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Hudson Brown

Hudson Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer when he's not travelling the globe. His words have been featured in the likes of SBS Food, Treadlie Magazine and Paper Sea Quarterly, while he was previously the editorial assistant for small footprint living publication Assemble Papers. He is also a regular contributor to Concrete Playground where he covers the latest art, culture and gastronomic happenings around town.

2020-06-29T04:57:41+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: , , |