This sample Gordon Parks Essay is published for informational purposes only. Free essays and research papers, are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality essay at affordable price please use our custom essay writing service.
Considered by some a modern Renaissance man, Gordon Parks was a groundbreaking photojournalist for Life, a noteworthy musician, composer, and film director, as well as an acclaimed novelist and screenwriter. He achieved great success by overcoming racial, social, and economic barriers, triumphs he discussed in three autobiographies as well as one autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree (1963). The multi-talented Parks is perhaps best known for directing Shaft (1971) and Shaft’s Big Score (1972), the first two entries in the popular film series about a black private detective played by Richard Roundtree.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Raised in Poverty
Born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, he was the youngest of fifteen children of Andrew and Sarah (Ross) Jackson Parks. Parks’ father was a dirt farmer, and the family lived in extreme poverty. Despite their lack of funds and the oppression caused by the intense racial segregation in the community, the strict Methodists taught Parks and his siblings to value honesty, justice, courage, and perseverance. As a young child, Parks displayed an innate talent for music and was able to play instruments by ear, including piano. When he was fifteen years old, however, his mother died and members of the family dispersed. Parks went to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with an older sister. There, he attended Central High School and Mechanical Arts High School.
After Parks fought with his brother-in-law, he was told to leave his sister’s home while still a high school student. He survived by taking odd jobs like mopping floors and working as a waiter. Parks tried to finish high school for a time, but he soon dropped out and drifted in search of work. Parks found a job as a piano player in a brothel. Later, he joined the Larry Funk Orchestra and went on tour with the group until it dissolved in New York in 1933. By this time, the United States, and indeed the world, was caught up in the Great Depression.
Continued Economic Struggles
The stock market crash of 1929 launched the Great Depression. The stock market crashed because an investment boom which began in 1924 was fueled by investors buying stocks on margin (in which investors took out loans to buy stocks for as little as ten percent down) and with purely speculative money. The stocks themselves were also wildly overvalued, and their value plummeted as the economy took a downturn. The failure of the stock market caused the economy, first in the United States, then the world, to fall in a dramatic and sustained depression, which lasted through the 1930s.
Part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan for creating jobs and helping the economic recovery was such entities as the Civilian Conservation Corps, which Parks joined in 1933. For the corps, he cleared forest land. He used this employment to return to Minnesota, where he married the first of three wives, Sally Avis. In 1935, he went to work on the railroad as a waiter on a dining car. By the late 1930s, Parks was working as a porter on the North Pacific Railroad line when he purchased a 35 millimeter camera from a pawn shop in Seattle. He used the camera, a Voightlander Brilliant, to take some pictures of seagulls over Puget Sound. The pictures were so impressive, that within weeks they were on display in a developer’s shop in Minnesota.
Success as a Photographer
Photography soon became Parks’s profession. Moving to Chicago at the behest of boxer Joe Louis’s wife, Marva, in 1941, she helped him gain some photography assignments shooting fashion and society photos. By early 1942, Parks was working as an apprentice with Roy Stryker at the Farm Services Administration, then taking photographs of his own. Many early pictures that Parks took, such as ”Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman” (1942), became highly regarded classics.
By 1943, Parks was a valued employee of Stryker, transferring with him to the Office of War Information, where he also gained valuable writing experience. By this time, the United States was fighting in World War II. The war had begun when Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland in September 1939 and overran the country. England and France declared war on Germany, but Germany soon controlled much of the European continent. The United States entered the war in 1941, after Japan bombed an American naval base in Hawaii. The war was fought in a number of theaters in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific, involving sixty-one countries and leaving fifty-five million people dead.
Challenging Photographs and First Books
As part of his assignment in the Office of War Information, Parks documented the activities of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of all-black fighter pilots whose achievements contributed greatly to the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948. In 1945, Stryker and Parks left the federal government’s employ to work for Standard Oil’s Photography Project in New Jersey, where Parks photographed small towns and urban views through 1948. At that time, Parks embarked on what became a twenty-year-long distinguished career as the first African American member of the photography staff of Life magazine. He photographed both famous and everyday people and traveled to Europe to take assignments. In 1948, he began working with color photography, and in 1959, added poetry to his repertoire. Life published a series of photographs by Parks which included verses of his own poems.
Published The Learning Tree
In the 1960s, Parks continued to produce memorable photojournalism, though his creative work expanded to include novels, beginning with the bestseller, The Learning Tree (1963). The novel was inspired by his own childhood and family in Kansas. Like many of Parks’s photographs, it gave a positive view of black people while also exposing the miserable conditions of daily life. He also wrote his first autobiography, A Choice of Weapons (1966), then published a volume of poetry, self-illustrated with his own photographs, A Poet and His Camera (1968).
After leaving Life in 1968, Parks moved to Hollywood where he worked as a screenwriter and director. His first project was his own adaptation of the The Learning Tree. Parks wrote the screenplay, produced and directed the film, and wrote the score. Following the critical success of The Learning Tree, Parks created the Shaft franchise in the early 1970s, and became instrumental in launching the blaxploitation genre of films that catered to African American audiences. In 1976, Parks filmed Leadbelly, about the life of the folksinger and guitarist Huddie Ledbetter.
Continued Work in Multiple Genres
While working in film, Parks continued to publish books as well, including a second autobiography, To Smile in Autumn: A Memoir (1979). In the 1980s, Parks continued to challenge himself by writing a work of adult fiction, the historical novel Shannon (1981). In 1989, he wrote a ballet about civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., entitled Martin, as well as its libretto, or accompanying text, and contributed to the choreography. Parks then published his third autobiography, Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography (1990). Living in New York City at the end of his life, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., sponsored a major retrospective of Parks’ entire career in 1997. Ill in his last years with prostate cancer and high blood pressure, he died of the diseases on March 7, 2006, in New York City.
Works in Literary Context
While known mostly as a photographer, Parks was also a gifted storyteller in words, using his personal experiences to illustrate such themes as overcoming social prejudice and personal hardship in order to succeed. His books celebrate the black family, black strength, and the determination of blacks to survive. As a writer, he was inspired by his varied life experiences from childhood to successful photographer and beyond.
A Social Documentarian in Words and Pictures
A key part of Parks’s life and art was his photography. Parks’s photography, like his writing, deals with many substantive issues, from politics and entertainment to the lives of ordinary men and women in their struggles to survive. Intertwining real life and art became a distinctive characteristic of Parks’s work throughout his career. A number of his pictures and writings reflect his interest in documenting the challenges faced by those who live in poverty and/or with effects of racism, both features of his own life. A significant proportion of his work focuses on the everyday lives of African Americans, including his Farm Security Administration pictures as well as his novel, The Learning Tree. Parks also used his photographs to illustrate his own writings. Most of his volumes of poetry, for example, were self-illustrated with photographs to illuminate the poems. Even his only collection of essays, Born Black, used photographs to underscore his discussion of race and what it meant to be African American in the United States during the mid-twentieth century.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have warmly embraced Parks as both a photographer and as a writer. Considered a gifted storyteller, each of his books has been generally praised by critics. Many have admired the candor of Parks’s autobiographies, which they feel reveal complexities about himself and race in America. However, critics generally disparage his studio films, though they admit that, like some of his best-known photographs, they combine social awareness with a vulgarian’s love of glitz and excess.
The Learning Tree
Perhaps Parks’s best known literary work, the autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree, was highly regarded by critics. Nat Hentoff in the New York Herald writes that the book ”is an honest, craftsman like sketch of a boyhood obviously similar to his own . . .” He added,”… Negro boys will be to identify much more strongly and hopefully with Newt Wingter’s story than they can with many books about alien American experiences, which they are now required to read.” A Time reviewer notes that Parks’s ”unabashed nostalgia for what was good there, blended with sharp recollections of staggering violence and fear, makes the novel an immensely readable, sometimes unsettling book.” Another critic, Louise Giles, concludes that the book was written not with resentment ”but rather with rueful reminiscence, even humor. It is an unassuming and thoroughly conventional book, but it has freshness, sincerity, and charm.”
A Choice of Weapons
Parks’s first autobiography, A Choice of Weapons, was considered by critics to be a powerful first-person narrative. Some reviewers consider it the most insightful of his series of autobiographies, and a number believe that A Choice of Weapons has greater impact than The Learning Tree because Parks documents his life with few artistic embellishments. Saunders Redding of The New York Times Book Review writes of Choice that it ”is not the overwrought, introspective and gut-wrenched jeremiad of a martyr to racial bigotry and hatred. It is, rather, a perceptive narrative of one man’s struggle to realize the values … he has been taught to respect.” Writing in the Saturday Review, Edwin M. Yoder Jr. concludes that A Choice of Weapons is ”an excellent introduction to what it must have been like to be black and ambitious—and poor—in the America of [the 1930s], when nearly every door was sealed to Negros.”
- Bush, Martin H. The Photographs of Gordon Parks. Wichita, Kans.: Wichita State University, 1983.
- Harnan, Terry. Gordon Parks, Black Photographer. Champaign, Ill.: Garrard, 1972.
- Midge, Turk. Gordon Parks. New York: Crowell, 1971.
- Briggs, Joe Bob. ”Who Dat Man? Shaft and the Blaxploitation Genre.” Cineaste (Spring 2003): 24—29.
- Henry, Matthew. ”He Is a ‘bad mother *$%@!#\’: Shaft and Contemporary Black Masculinity.” Journal of Popular Film and Television (Summer 2002): 114.
- Hentoff, Nat. Review of The Learning Tree. New York Herald Tribune (August 25, 1963): 6.
- Kevles, Barbara. ”The Marketing of Leadbelly.” Cineaste (Spring 2003): 34-35.
- Redding, Saunders. Review of A Choice of Weapons. The New York Times Book Review (February 13, 1966).
- Review of The Learning Tree. Time (September 6, 1963).
- Yoder, Edwin M., Jr. ”No Catch for the Hawk.” Saturday Review (February 12, 1966): 40.
Free essays are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom essay, research paper, or term paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price. UniversalEssays is the best choice for those who seek help in essay writing or research paper writing in any field of study.