Magazine article Art Education

A Choice of Weapons: Photographs of Gordon Parks

Magazine article Art Education

A Choice of Weapons: Photographs of Gordon Parks

Article excerpt

Biography: Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks is one of the most influential social documentary artists of the 20th century. Through his photography, films, autobiographies, and poetry, he is committed to studying the human condition of those who suffer social, political, and economic injustices. His work is directly influenced by his own life experiences as an African American who was raised in the Midwest during some of the most turbulent times in recent U.S. history.

Born in 1912, the youngest of 15 children in a family that farmed in rural Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks witnessed extreme poverty and racism firsthand. At the age of 15, he moved to Minneapolis following his mother's death and supported himself with various odd jobs. Although he attended integrated schools, he faced prejudice and segregation from White communities. To combat these problems, he bought his first camera in 1938 and used it to voice his concerns for civil rights, poverty, and crime and as a means to earn income.

Parks's career in photography took many forms. He first photographed fashion in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and then in Chicago. In 1941, he became the first photographer to receive a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. The fellowship allowed him to work in the photography department with Roy Stryker, the director of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C. The agency's mission was to document the social and cultural effects of the Depression throughout the country. He later worked as a photographer for the Office of War Information (OWI).

Parks returned to the world of fashion in 1944 when he was hired by Vogue magazine to photograph haute couture. By 1948, he became the first African-American photographer for Life magazine, for which he worked in both the United States and Paris. Some of his most significant photography projects for Life magazine include his pictures of Harlem gang violence, religious and social leaders such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, and portraits such as Muhammad Ali.

In addition to Parks's photography, his most noteworthy projects include several volumes of poetry, autobiographies like The Learning Tree (Parks, 1963) and A Choice of Weapons (Parks, 1966) and several films such as his 1971 action movie "Shaft" that features an African-American hero.

Recently, Parks, who lives in New York City, has been photographing landscapes and still lifes and continues to write books on photography and poetry.

Historical Background

After Slavery

After the abolishment of slavery in 1865, several organizations arose to end racial injustice and promote equality for all U.S. citizens, but that would prove to be a slow process. Even after African Americans were granted the right to vote in 1870, there was a long way to go toward equality. Many laws still existed that kept public and private facilities segregated. It wasn't until the 1960s, almost 100 years later, that the effort gained enough momentum and attention to facilitate change.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression lasted from about 1929 when the U.S. stock market crashed, to the beginning of U.S. involvement in WWII, and it was one of the bleakest periods in U. S. history. Economic collapse, compounded with the Dust Bowl and other natural disasters, left many people jobless and homeless. This desperate period in U.S. history caused people to question democracy, capitalism, and individualism. The U.S. government reacted by creating agencies and controls to manage economic and social problems (www.nhmccd.edu/ contracts/lrc/kc/decade30.html#events).

Farm Security Administration (FSA)

The FSA photography project was active from 1937-1942. Roy Emerson Stryker, the head of this government project, hired many photographers including Gordon Parks, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn to document the plight of rural Americans during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. …

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