Gordon Parks: photojournalist, Renaissance man

December 02, 1990|By M. DION THOMPSON

Voices in the Mirror: an Autobiography.

Gordon Parks.


351 pages. $22.95. The story begins on the Kansas prairie with a newborn baby, apparently dead, being wrapped for disposal. But an assisting doctor intervenes, places the silent child in a tub of cold water and swishes him about. The baby boy screams to life. Such was the beginning of Gordon Parks' life.

What a life it has been. He has become a true Renaissance man: photojournalist, film director, composer, author of 12 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. He has received more than 50 honorary doctorates and awards, including the National Medal of Art. And he never finished high school.

In this record of memory, Mr. Parks gives us an honest and compelling account of his wildly fascinating life. We watch as he progresses through his early years in Fort Scott, Kan., a small town with some ugly ways. There are racism and violence, but they are only a prelude of things to come. That he survived his early years in Kansas, Minnesota and Chicago without surrendering to despair is an amazing tribute to his emotional strength and the sheer force of his will.

Music was his first creative outlet, but it soon gave way to the camera. A powerful collection of prints taken by such Farm Security Administration photographers as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein teased his photographic eye into awakening. He bought a $7.50 Voightlander Brilliant at a pawnshop and took it to Chicago's South Side. There, his documentary skills began as he photographed scenes he described as "bruises on the face of humanity."

None of those early pictures is included in the book, but they were the springboard for Mr. Parks. What followed was the work that made him famous. One picture, taken in Washington in 1942 while he worked for the FSA is included: It shows Ella Watson, a black cleaning lady, standing in front of the American flag, mop and broom in hand. It is Mr. Parks' own version of Grant Woods' "American Gothic." And it points out one of his observations about his craft: ". . . a good documentary photographer's work has as much to do with his heart as it does with his eye."

Mr. Parks' stint with the FSA was only the first of many stops in his career. Later came the then all-white sanctuaries of American magazine publishing, the flashy fashion reviews of Paris, the enclaves of fallen European monarchs. Through it all he lived a life that took him farther and farther away from the small Kansas town of his birth, a development he found at times deeply troubling. Here are his thoughts upon returning from Paris, where he was based for Life magazine:

"For me it seemed at times like I had won a rather pyrrhic victory. . . . Yet I was not unaware that America, with all its shortcomings, still had more to offer black people than any country in the world. The sad thing was that America made it so hard for black people to realize this."

The drive that carried Mr. Parks to success also took its toll on his family life. There was never enough time. He was married and divorced three times during the decades that saw him go from FSA photographer to big-time photojournalist to Hollywood director. All this is here, too, and it adds to the story, fleshes it out, taking it beyond being simply a chronicle of one man's achievements.

Mr. Thompson is a reporter for The Sun.

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