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The big picture 

Focusing on greatness: Gordon Parks' "Muhammad Ali", 1970.

Gordon Parks has done a lot. Even before he picked up a camera in 1938, at the age of 25, he had tried his hand at "you name it, you know, just about everything." He worked in a bar, washed dishes in a restaurant, played piano in a brothel, toured with the Larry Funk Orchestra, played semi-professional basketball and football, built roads for Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, and made bricks in a factory. It was whilst working as a waiter on a transcontinental railroad that he bought his first cheap camera, a Voightlander Brilliant, at a Seattle pawnshop.

            As a black man growing up in a bigoted world, opportunities were limited. But photography offered Parks a way out. His earliest work was in fashion, but after attracting some attention for an exhibition of documentary photographs in Chicago, he won a scholarship to work for the prestigious Farm Security Administration in Washington, DC. Suddenly he found himself in the exalted company of such greats as Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange, whose work, documenting the Great Depression, he much admired. One of thefirst photographs he took for the FSA struck at the very heart of the racism that he continued to experience in the nation's capital. The picture, entitled American Gothic, showed Ella Watson, a black charwoman, standing forlornly in front of the American flag with a mop in one hand and a broom in the other.

            In 1944, after a recommendation from none other than Edward Steichen, he started shooting fashion for Vogue. For many of his high-minded colleagues in photojournalism, this seemed like a step down. But five years later, it was just this kind of versatility that won him a position at Life magazine, one of the most coveted jobs in photography at that time. The fashion editor needed someone to shoot the upcoming Paris collections; the features editor needed someone to photograph an essay on crime.

            For over 20 years, Life provided Parks with assignments that took him all over the globe and resulted in many of his most memorable images: in London, Muhammad Ali, covered in sweat, focuses on the fight ahead; on the Italian island of Stromboli, Ingrid Bergman senses the disapproving stares of three local women; in Brazil, Flavio da Silva poses bravely amidst desperate poverty.

            Life allowed him to consolidate his reputation as a world-class photographer, but it also encouraged him to develop other skills. He often wrote the text to accompany his images, and his style is eminently readable. His literary efforts are often overshadowed by his photographic work, but he has in fact published 18 books over the past 45 years. These include novels, collections of poetry, an autobiography, and guides to photographic technique.

            The Learning Tree, a semi-autobiographical account of his early poverty-stricken years in rural Kansas, was later turned into a feature film under his own direction. He also wrote the screenplay and composed the soundtrack. In all, he has directed 10 films, the most famous of which is the '70s blaxploitation movie, Shaft, and its follow up, Shaft's Big Score!

            The mind starts to boggle when you also learn of his musical accomplishments. He has composed over 12 major pieces, including a piano concerto in 1950 and, yes, believe it or not, a ballet called Martin in 1989, inspired by the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

            Conventional wisdom tends to cast doubt on such a broad spectrum of artistic endeavor: How can you really perfect your craft if you keep jumping from one medium to another? But perhaps the key to appreciating Parks' multifaceted career is to understand that he makes no such claims to perfection. He is an experimenter. His fans often bandy about terms such as "Renaissance man" or "artistic genius," but Parks himself remains modest: "Everything I've done is because I had to survive. I don't attach any genius to it."

            The survival instinct, however, can drive men to great heights, and even at the ripe old age of 90, Parks is still producing new work. In a recent interview with the New York Times, he noted that he was working on a piece of music for the cello to be performed by Yo-Yo Ma. His latest book, The Sun Chaser, a fictionalized biography of the English painter J.M.W.Turner, is hot off the press.

            As a critic, I find his documentary photographs impressive, his prose compelling, his fashion shots suitably elegant, and his music suitably melodic; his poetry and films are a little clunky; his still lifes of leaves, twigs, and petals in front of Turner-esque painted backdrops are, at best, decorative; and his recently published nudes are appallingly gratuitous.

            And yet, despite these complaints, I retain enormous respect for the man. Perhaps what I admire most of all is his energy and confidence, his refusal to accept traditional boundaries, his willingness to take risks. It is an attitude to which we could all usefully aspire, and it is reflected in his art, for better or for worse, in all its various forms.

Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks continues through April 6 at the George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue. Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tix: adults $8; seniors $6; students $5; children 5-12 $3. 271- 3361.

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