Gordon Parks, African American filmmaker, dies at 93

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Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Gordon Parks at Civil Rights March on Washington, 1963.

Renowned African American artist Gordon Parks, known for his photography, film direction, and autobiographical works, including the book and film The Learning Tree, died Tuesday at his home in New York. He was 93.

Parks was a pioneering black artist with an impressive list of honors and accomplishments, including at least 40 honorary doctorate degrees. He was the first African American staff photographer for Life magazine, where he worked from 1948 to 1972. President Reagan presented him with the National Medal of Arts in 1988. He published at least five semi or wholly autobiographical books.

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchannan Parks was born November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of 15 children. After his mother's death when he was 16, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he attended high school. He dropped out in order to find work during increasingly hard times, traveling extensively in the North and Northwest looking for jobs.

In 1938, he bought his first camera and experimented with both documentary and fashion photography. At age 30, he won a fellowship and traveled to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration and later for the Office of War Information.

During his time at the FSA, Parks composed photo-essays critical of the racial and social prejudices many faced. His work drew attention both to himself and to the poverty and social injustices of the time.

After the beginning of the war, Parks moved to Harlem, where he found a job as a fashion photographer for Vogue and continued to take socially provocative photos of slum life in the city. It was these photos that convinced Life's photography editor to hire him.

In 1962, Parks wrote The Learning Tree, based on his Kansas childhood. The book was a success, and Parks later directed the film version, for which he also wrote the screenplay and the music. The Learning Tree was one of the first 25 films placed on the National Film Registry. Parks next directed Shaft and its successful sequel, Shaft's Big Score, as well as a blaxploitation comedy called Supercops.

Parks' other artistic achievements include a ballet, written about Martin Luther King, Jr., four other memoirs, a collection of poetry, several original musical compositions and at least one other fictional, non-autobiographical novel. Collections and exhibits of his photography have traveled extensively within and beyond the United States.

He is survived by his three ex-wives, Sally Alvis, Elizabeth Campbell, and Ms. Young; his daughter, Toni Parks Parson, and his son, David, from his first marriage; and a daughter, Leslie Parks Harding, from his second marriage; five grandchildren; and five great grandchildren. A son, Gordon Parks Jr., died in 1979.

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