Gordon Parks

born Fort Scott, KS 1912-died New York City 2006
Also known as
  • Gordon Alexander Buchanan Parks
  • Gordon Alexander Parks
  • Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks
Fort Scott, Kansas, United States
New York, New York, United States
  • American

The people of Fort Scott, Kansas, have stayed with Gordon Parks all his life. He grew up in this prairie town, the youngest child in a family of fifteen, amid poverty and racism. In 1963 Parks published a moving autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree. During his childhood, he asked his mother if the family had to stay in Fort Scott forever, and she replied: "I don't know son, … but you're to let this place be your learning tree. Trees bear good fruit and bad fruit, and that's the way it is."

This image is among the many pictures of individuals and events Parks created of his hometown. An anonymous young man is lost in reverie, seemingly unaware of the photographer's presence. His bearing and expression and the closely cropped frame isolate him. The background is blurred, but the objects on the counter suggest the setting is a bar. Parks is a master of human observation and storytelling. He distills a world of experience and emotion into the way light and shadow play across the jaw, fedora, and bent hand. Parks called his camera his "weapon against poverty and racism." Parks's own determination and achievement suggest that this is not an image of an individual defeated, but one contemplating a way out.

Gwen Everett African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C. and New York: Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003)

Related Books

African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum
African American Masters focuses on black artists whose efforts in the twentieth century demonstrate their command of mainstream traditions as well as the open assertion and exploration of their dual heritage. Many—like Sargent Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, James Porter, and William H. Johnson—responded in the 1930s and 1940s to Alain Locke's call for an art of the “New Negro” and explored the social and narrative aspects of African or African American sources. Others—Henry Ossawa Tanner, Beauford Delaney, and Norman Lewis—embraced broader themes or the modernist challenges of form and color. Contemporary artists—from Betye Saar and Mel Edwards to Renée Stout and Whitfield Lovell—have mined sources as varied as the autobiographical and the international. Horace Pippin and Purvis Young, as self-taught artists, tapped the spiritual and social underpinnings of their communities. Portraits and documentary images have dominated the subject matter of modern black photographers. James VanDerZee and Roland Freeman epitomize those photographers who have chosen the people and environment of their own neighborhoods as their subjects. Others, foremost among them Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks, have sought out communities or traditions of the larger African American society.