Exposed to greatness

A generation of artists drew inspiration from Gordon Parks_not only from his photography, but also his'restless spirit'

March 09, 2006|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

The first time Linda Day Clark saw a photograph by Gordon Parks, the late, great African-American photographer, filmmaker and composer, she was a Maryland Institute College of Art student in a beginning photo class.

Parks' work - dramatic portraits of African-American life that seemed to possess an uncanny internal illumination and a brooding social conscience - grabbed her attention and held it.

"He had a lovely, poetic sense of composition even in his grittiest, most realistic pictures, and beautiful light. His pictures taught me that we African-Americans were part of the fabric of American art, and not only that, but there was someone out there leading the way who was going to pass the baton on to us," she says.

"I was so thrilled to find someone who was African-American making these amazing images."

The hold Parks' work had on Clark was such that three years ago, she traveled to New York to celebrate his birthday - without ever having met him before.

Organized by a group of African-American news photographers, the event brought together nearly 100 black photographers who wanted to pay tribute to Parks' career by marking his 90th birthday. As part of the festivities, group members were photographed as they re-created a famous 1958 photograph of jazz musicians by Art Kane. Later, they spent much of the day taking pictures in Harlem, where Parks in the late 1940s had created a photo essay for Life magazine on street gangs. Later there was a banquet at which Clark recalls Parks being "very lively, very gregarious, very funny and engaging" - and also remarkably flirtatious for a nonagenarian, even one as celebrated as he.

Parks, who died Monday at age 93, left a legacy that extends far beyond brilliant photo essays.

His tremendous love of life inspired generations of artists, both black and white, not just through the incredibly high standard he set in his own work - whether in photojournalism, filmmaking, writing and social documentary - but through the amazing breadth of his interests, which extended to music, writing and painting.

"He was a trailblazer for artists in general, for photographers in particular, and especially for black photographers," says Clark, who is now a photographer and professor of art at Coppin State University. "Parks was a true Renaissance man who during his career explored both the most horrific things and the most beautiful things in life."

Parks, who by the 1960s was already celebrated for his photojournalism, became even more famous after he donned the director's hat for such films as The Learning Tree, a 1969 autobiographical coming-of-age movie set in his native Kansas, and for the pioneering blaxploitation flicks Shaft and Shaft's Big Score, commercial successes of the early 1970s that spawned a legion of imitators.

Much of the power of his work stemmed from his personal experiences of injustice and his willingness to use the camera as an instrument of change, says A.M. Weaver, a curator at the Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville, N.J., who is writing a book about African-American photographers.

"He was deeply affected by the condition of the people whose images he recorded," Weaver says. "He was a restless spirit who knew that life wasn't easy, and that one had to persevere with all the strength one had."

One of Parks' most famous photo essays for Life depicted the story of Flavio da Silva, a desperately poor boy living in the favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro.

"In 1961 I found myself dead center of the worst poverty I have ever encountered," Parks recalled in Half Past Autumn, his 1997 memoir.

"I had stopped to rest in the shade of a jacaranda tree when Jose Gallo, a Life reporter and my interpreter, sat down beside me. We watched as [a] small boy climbed toward us with a tin of water on his head. He wore a pair of filthy denim shorts, and he was miserably thin with spindly legs. Death was all over him - in his sunken eyes, cheeks and jaundiced coloring. He stopped for a moment to cough, smiled a smile I won't forget, and continued climbing."

Parks, who was carrying a note in his back pocket with his assignment written on it - "Poverty in Latin America" - instantly knew he had found his subject.

Born in 1912, Parks had only the most rudimentary training in photography - he had not even graduated from high school - when he joined the photographers of the federal Farm Security Administration's documentary unit directed by economist Roy Stryker. The unit included such luminaries as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein.

Parks made one of his most celebrated images shortly after arriving in Washington in 1942. Returning to the office one day discouraged by the blatant racial bigotry he had encountered in the nation's capital, Parks went to Stryker for advice, according to the photographer's memoir.

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