Photography Master Series – Gordon Parks


Like most art forms, photography is where it is today because of previous artists who pushed it further along. Whether it’s a visual style, the inclusion of all races, genders, and sexualities, or pure innovation to the subject of photography, people are responsible for moving the envelope of photography.

Gordon Parks Self Portrait

This is our first installment of the Photography Master Series. We’re going to take an in-depth and quick look into a Photography Master who is an icon regarding the world of photography. Going over aspects such as who they are, their style, influence, list of awards, and much more.

To begin our Photography Masters Series, we chose Gordon Parks. Parks was a self-taught artist and photographer who became the first African-American photographer for Vogue and Life magazine.

Who is Gordon Parks?

Gordon Parks was born on November 30th, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas. Coming from a family of fifteen, Parks attended a segregated school for most of his life. Like most African Americans in the south during the early 1900s, Parks had an exceedingly difficult life growing up.

At 11-years-old, Parks had a near-death experience when three white boys threw him in a river, knowing he couldn’t swim. His mother died when he was 14-years-old, which prompted him to live with his sister and her husband in St. Paul, Minnesota. After countless disagreements with his brother-in-law, Parks had to fend for himself on the streets.

Parks took on various jobs as a singer, piano player, waiter, busboy, and a semi-pro basketball player. At 25-years-old, Parks discovered photography. After looking through magazines of migrant workers, Parks bought his first camera at a pawn shop. Impressed by his work, photography clerks encouraged Parks to take photos for a fashion shoot.

Nursemaid’s Kerchief by Lilly Daché, New York, New York, 1952

Park’s photographs eventually got to Marva Louis, wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who encouraged Parks and his wife to move to Chicago. In 1940, Parks and his wife moved to Chicago, where Parks photography began to take off seriously.

Esther Dorothy’s Muskrat Fur Fashion (1948)

Throughout the 1940s to the 1970s, Parks specialized as a photojournalist documenting issues of civil rights and poverty. His most famous photos during the 1940s were brought to life by a federal government project, making him one of the most popular and sought after voices in photography.

What is Social Realism?

American Gothic (1942)

Social realism is a brutally realistic depiction in art of contemporary life. It’s usually done as a way for social or political comment. Although Parks had a wide array of styles and photography variations, social realism was the central motif of his work.

Colored Entrance, Gordon Parks, 1956

Parks’ work highlighted aspects of American culture, such as civil rights, poverty, race relations, and urban life. Parts of American culture that weren’t brought to the forefront at the time.

Gordon Parks Influence

Parks’ photographs throughout the 1940s and 1970s helped shift the minds of Americans regarding race issues. Many Americans were oblivious to the horrible living conditions African Americans were forced to live in, and his photographs brought it to the mainstream understanding.

Street Scene: Two Children Walking; Harlem, NY 1943

Style-wise, Parks used an excellent representation of meaning in all of his work. Many photographers cite the evolution and innovation of photography meaning to parks, highlighting how words can be brought to life with a photo.

Gordon Parks. “Drinking Fountains, Mobile, Alabama,” 1956

For the sake of accomplishing your dreams, Parks is a clear example who overcame all odds against him in the most prolific sense. Going from living on the streets to one of the greatest photographers of all time is influential in and of itself.

Muhammad Ali, 1970

List of Awards

Parks is an icon for a reason. He won numerous awards throughout his life, and rightfully so. Without Parks, all forms of photography would not be where they are today. Here are a few of Parks notable awards:

  • Rosenwald Fund Fellowship for Photography (1941)
  • Magazine Photographer of the Year (1961)
  • Spingarn Medal (1972)
  • NAACP Image Award – Hall of Fame Award (1984)
  • Nation Medal of Arts (1988)
  • Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement (1998)

Gordon Parks Endeavors Outside of Photography

Outside of photography, Parks was very prolific with everything he did. He is a clear example of someone gifted in every sense. Here are a few examples of his work outside of photography:


Parks at work at his desk, ca. 1946

Writing-wise, Parks had over 15 books throughout his lifetime. He wrote poetry and fiction, which led to him to filmmaking. Here are a few of his most popular writing works:


Gordon Parks on the set of “The Learning Tree.” (Warner Bros,-Seven Arts, Inc.)

Filmmaker Spike Lee notes Gordon Parks as being a massive influence on his life. Parks is noted as being one of the creators of blaxploitation, a subgenre of exploitation films. Parks’ writing led him to create several films in the 1970s, here are a few of his most popular:


Gordon Parks Playing the Piano

Before photography, Parks was a piano player who primarily made his income by playing musical pieces at a brothel. Later in his life, Parks composed music for a variety of orchestra and films.


Parks painted abstract oil paintings in relation to his photography. His painting work was shown in a 1981 exhibition at the Alex Rosenberg Gallery in New York City.


Sadly, Gordon Parks died on March 7th, 2006. The world will never forget the incredible art and documentation of Gordon Parks.

Gordon Parks (Los Angeles Times)

Where would the world of photography be without Gordon Parks? His game-changing prolificity with social realism, fashion, and abstract photography impacted photography very few photographers accomplished, not to mention his work with filmmaking, literature, and painting.

For more information about Gordon Parks, visit The Gordon Parks Foundation HERE.

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