Gordon Parks (1912 -2006)
He was stillborn — no heartbeat, declared dead by the family doctor, and put aside for later burial. Another doctor in the delivery room had an idea, and immersed the newborn in ice-cold water. The shock caused his heart to start beating, and the baby was soon crying and healthy, and named for Dr. Gordon, who had saved his life. In the more than ninety years of his life, Gordon Parks became internationally renowned as a photographer, filmmaker, poet, novelist, and composer.
Parks grew up poor in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of 15 children. One of his early memories was hearing his all-black class told by their white schoolteacher, “You’ll all wind up porters and maids.” His mother died when Parks was 14, and he was sent to live with an older sister in Minneapolis, until her husband kicked him out. Between bouts of homelessness, he earned rent as a piano player in a bordello. He also worked as a busboy, a Civilian Conservation Corpsman, and as his teacher had predicted, as a porter and later waiter on the transcontinental North Coast Limited.
At 25, he bought a used camera for $7.50 and began working as a self-taught freelance photographer, focusing on everything from fashion to the effects the depression in Chicago’s slums. By 1944, he was the only black photographer working for Vogue, and in 1948 he became the first black photographer at Life, the most prestigious magazine of its day for photography. Eventually Life sent him to France, Italy, and Spain, and stateside he became known for his photos documenting the civil rights movement. He reported on segregation in Alabama in 1956, the growing Nation of Islam movement in the 1960s, and the assassination of Martin Luther King. In his spare time, Parks also directed a few films.