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Gordon Parks

Gordon ParksAKA Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks

Born: 30-Nov-1912
Birthplace: Fort Scott, KS
Died: 7-Mar-2006
Location of death: New York City
Cause of death: Cancer - unspecified
Remains: Buried, Evergreen Cemetery, Fort Scott, KS

Gender: Male
Religion: Methodist
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Film Director, Photographer, Author

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Shaft

He was stillborn -- no heartbeat, declared dead by the family doctor, and put aside for later burial. Another doctor in the delivery room had an idea, and immersed the newborn in ice-cold water. The shock caused his heart to start beating, and the baby was soon crying and healthy, and named for Dr. Gordon, who had saved his life. In the more than ninety years of his life, Gordon Parks became internationally renowned as a photographer, filmmaker, poet, novelist, and composer.

Parks grew up poor in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of 15 children. One of his early memories was hearing his all-black class told by their white schoolteacher, "You'll all wind up porters and maids." His mother died when Parks was 14, and he was sent to live with an older sister in Minneapolis, until her husband kicked him out. Between bouts of homelessness, he earned rent as a piano player in a bordello. He also worked as a busboy, a Civilian Conservation Corpsman, and as his teacher had predicted, as a porter and later waiter on the transcontinental North Coast Limited.

At 25, he bought a used camera for $7.50 and began working as a self-taught freelance photographer, focusing on everything from fashion to the effects the depression in Chicago's slums. By 1944, he was the only black photographer working for Vogue, and in 1948 he became the first black photographer at Life, the most prestigious magazine of its day for photography. Eventually Life sent him to France, Italy, and Spain, and stateside he became known for his photos documenting the civil rights movement. He reported on segregation in Alabama in 1956, the growing Nation of Islam movement in the 1960s, and the assassination of Martin Luther King. In his spare time, Parks also directed a few very, very low-budget films.

His autobiographical novel The Learning Tree, covering his rough Kansas childhood, won rave reviews and strong sales. When Warner Brothers expressed interest, Parks told them he would direct the film himself, and he became the first African-American to direct a film for a major studio. He went on to direct Shaft and its sequel Shaft's Big Score, Half Slave, Half Free, and several other movies. His biography of bluesman Leadbelly was perhaps his best film, but it was Shaft that had the most impact on American culture. Black audiences had never before been offered a major-studio action film with a black hero. It not only spawned several years of "blaxploitation" action films, it earned enough money to save then-struggling MGM from bankruptcy.

Parks was a close friend of Muhammad Ali, and godfather for Malcolm X's daughter Quibilah Shabazz. He was a co-founder of Essence magazine, and wrote a ballet called Martin, in honor of King. His numerous books include The Sun Stalker, Poet & His Camera, To Smile in Autumn, and his autobiography, Voices in the Mirror.

In his retirment, Parks did whatever he wished. In 2004, he interviewed retro rocker Lenny Kravitz for Interview magazine. He completed a book of nude photography, and often traveled to film screenings and museum programs in his honor.

Father: Andrew Jackson Parks
Mother: Sarah Parks
Wife: Sally Alvis (m. 1933, div. 1961, two sons, one daughter)
Son: Gordon Parks Jr. (film director, b. 7-Dec-1934, d. 1979 plane crash)
Daughter: Toni Parks Parsons (photographer)
Son: David Parks (author)
Wife: Elizabeth Campbell Rollins (m. 1962, div. 1973, one daughter)
Daughter: Leslie Parks (chef, Manhattan's Cafe Beulah)
Wife: Genevieve Young (managing editor, Harper & Row, m. Aug-1973, div. 1979)
Girlfriend: Gloria Vanderbilt

    High School: (dropped out)

    Vogue Photographer
    Life Photographer (20 years)
    Essence Cofounder
    Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame 1974
    Spingarn Medal 1972
    National Medal of Arts 1988
    Risk Factors: Smoking

    Solomon Northup's Odyssey (1984)
    Leadbelly (28-May-1976)
    The Super Cops (4-Nov-1974)
    Shaft's Big Score (8-Jun-1972)
    Shaft (2-Jul-1971)
    The Learning Tree (6-Aug-1969)

    An Unlikely Weapon (18-Feb-2008) · Himself

Author of books:
Flash Photography (1947, photography)
Camera Portraits: The Techniques and Principles (1948, photography)
The Learning Tree (1963, novel)
A Choice of Weapons (1966, memoir)
A Poet and His Camera (1968, photography)
In Love (1971, photography)
Whispers of Intimate Things (1971, photography)
Born Black: A Personal Report on the Decade of Black Revolt 1960-1970 (1971)
Moments Without Proper Names (1975)
Flavio (1978, photography)
To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir (1979, memoir)
Shannon (1981, novel)
Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography (1990, memoir)
Arias in Silence (1994, photography)
Glimpses Toward Infinity (1996, photography)
Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective (1997, photography)
Harlem: The Artist's Annotations on a City Revisited in Two Classic Photographic Essays (1997, photography)
A Star for Noon: An Homage to Women in Images, Poetry and Music (2000, photography)

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