How self-taught photographer Gordon Parks became a master storyteller

How self-taught photographer Gordon Parks became a master storyteller


JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally tonight: the world
through his lens. Jeffrey Brown has a look at the extraordinary
journey of photographer Gordon Parks. JEFFREY BROWN: Two children with a doll, who
are they, and what are their lives like? A young man walking away from us, where is
he coming from and where is he going? Armed with his camera, Gordon Parks told stories
of individuals and, through them, of the larger world. PHILIP BROOKMAN, National Gallery of Art:
He had a fantastic ability to, you know, compose a series of elements within a picture to convey
a sense of — of a story. JEFFREY BROWN: Philip Brookman is curator
of Gordon Parks: The New Tide, an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Spanning the first 10 years of his career,
from 1940 to 1950, it’s a chance to see how a young man, self-taught and without a high
school diploma, became one of the 20th century’s master artists. PHILIP BROOKMAN: Parks came to an understanding,
I think, really before he ever picked up a camera, that it could be a tool for him to
use to be able to express his own feelings about his life. JEFFREY BROWN: Gordon Parks was born in Fort
Scott, Kansas, in 1912, the youngest of 15 children. He credited his mother, Sarah, who died when
he was 16, with giving him confidence and strength, even growing up amid poverty and
prejudice. Parks spoke of his childhood in a 1997 “NewsHour”
interview. GORDON PARKS, Photographer: That disadvantage
sometimes pushes you, you know, if you use it right, because you want to rid yourself
of those things that hurt you emotionally when you’re coming up. JEFFREY BROWN: Inspired by the work of Dorothea
Lange, Walker Evans, and other Depression era photographers he saw in magazines, Parks
first picked up a camera at the age of 25. In St. Paul and then Chicago, he took portraits,
including Marva Trotter Louis, a performer, model and wife of boxer Joe Louis. He befriended and photographed leading African-American
artists and scholars, including Langston Hughes, Charles White, Alain Locke. And he did his first journalism, covering
Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to a South Side community center. Parks called the camera his choice of weapons. PHILIP BROOKMAN: Gordon Parks always had a
sense that media, that the camera and photography and writing and media, could be a very important
tool in helping the world understand the image of African-American people. And it was through that understanding that
you could make the world a better place. JEFFREY BROWN: In 1942, Parks was awarded
a prestigious fellowship, allowing him to work as a photographer for the Farm Security
Administration. His first assignment? Documenting African-American life in Washington,
D.C., then a deeply segregated city. Among his early works, this photo of a young
boy who lost his leg in a streetcar accident. PHILIP BROOKMAN: I was really struck by, you
know, how intense the relationships are in the picture. JEFFREY BROWN: The relationships between the
photographer… (CROSSTALK) PHILIP BROOKMAN: Relationships between the
photographer and the boy, but also the relationship between the boy and the two girls sitting
across the street. These are things that Parks put them there
for us to find. And he knew he was doing that. JEFFREY BROWN: It was here Parks created one
of his most famous photos, a portrait of Ella Watson, a cleaning lady in a government building. GORDON PARKS: I first asked her about her
life, what it was like. And it was so disastrous that I just felt
that I must photograph this woman, and in a way that would make me feel, make the public
feel about what Washington, D.C., was in 1942. JEFFREY BROWN: The now iconic image, called
“American Gothic” after the famed painting by Grant Wood, was part of a larger series
on Watson, her family and community, an extended photo essay style that Parks would go on to
use throughout his career. PHILIP BROOKMAN: Parks, often, he would meet
people, and he would talk to them. He would learn their stories. He would understand who they were, you know,
long before he would ever bring along a camera. He was able to use his own experiences and
his own struggles to understand and empathize with others. JEFFREY BROWN: In 1944, Standard Oil hired
Parks as a photographer. He would continue to hone his craft, and earn
his first real paycheck, traveling around the country shooting scenes and portraits
like this one of an oil worker at the Penola grease plant in Pittsburgh. PHILIP BROOKMAN: What he’s done is, he’s created
a portrait of a heroic African-American worker working for Standard Oil. This is an amazingly, you know, technical
photograph to produce. And, you know, in a very short time, Parks
has learned, you know, the skills, and mastered those skills. JEFFREY BROWN: He photographed white fisherman
and farmers, black pilots training for war, and he continued to break barriers. In 1949, he was hired as the first black staff
photographer at “LIFE” magazine, where his photo essays included one on a Harlem gang
member named Red Jackson. He also traveled internationally, shooting
high fashion spreads in Paris, and celebrities like Ingrid Bergman in Italy. In 1950, he returned to his childhood home
in Fort Scott to shoot a series for the magazine. And all of this was just the beginning. Parks would go on to write several memoirs
and novels, to direct films, including “Shaft” and an adaptation of his book “The Learning
Tree,” and to compose music, while continuing to work as a photographer. PHILIP BROOKMAN: He never understood that
he wasn’t supposed to do it. He just did it. JEFFREY BROWN: Gordon Parks died in 2006 at
the age of 93. The exhibition Gordon Parks: The New Tide
is on through February 18. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown
at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

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