Richard Prince's Journal-isms™

Gordon Parks Dies at 93

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Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Renaissance Man Known for Gritty Photo Essays

"Gordon Parks, who captured the struggles and triumphs of black America as a photographer for Life magazine and then became Hollywood's first major black director with 'The Learning Tree' and the hit 'Shaft,' died Tuesday, a family member said. He was 93, Polly Anderson reported tonight for the Associated Press.

"Parks, who also wrote fiction and was an accomplished composer, died in New York, his nephew, Charles Parks, said in a telephone interview from Lawrence, Kan."

". . . He covered everything from fashion to politics to sports during his 20 years at Life, from 1948 to 1968.

"But as a photographer, he was perhaps best known for his gritty photo essays on the grinding effects of poverty in the United States and abroad and on the spirit of the civil rights movement.

"'Those special problems spawned by poverty and crime touched me more, and I dug into them with more enthusiasm,' he said. 'Working at them again revealed the superiority of the camera to explore the dilemmas they posed.'

"In 1961, his photographs in Life of a poor, ailing Brazilian boy named Flavio da Silva brought donations that saved the boy and purchased a new home for him and his family.

"In his autobiography, he recalled that being Life's only black photographer put him in a peculiar position when he set out to cover the civil rights movement.

"'Life magazine was eager to penetrate their ranks for stories, but the black movement thought of Life as just another white establishment out of tune with their cause,' he wrote. He said his aim was to become 'an objective reporter, but one with a subjective heart,'" the AP story continued.

Parks was also one of the co-founders in 1970 of Essence magazine, along with Edward Lewis, Jonathan Blount, Cecil Hollingsworth and Clarence Smith. He was its editorial director from 1970 to 1973. He bought a majority of its stock in 1977 and unsuccessfully claimed control of the magazine.

Among his many honors were a lifetime achievement award last year from the National Association of Minority Media Executives (NAMME).

As reported then, he was unable to travel, but he filmed an acceptance (MOV file) of his award and recalled his mother's advice: "Know what you want to do and know how to do it well, and do it with pride." She also said, "if a white boy can do it, you can do itâ??and you better do it better or you better not come home," Parks recounted.

In May 1990, at the JW Marriott Hotel in Washington, Parks was one of the first seven inductees to the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. He was among other legends; the others were Ted Poston, pioneeer New York Post reporter, represented by his widow, Erna Poston; broadcasters Norma Quarles and Mal Goode; columnists Carl T. Rowan and Dorothy Gilliam, and Mal H. Johnson of Cox Broadcasting, founding treasurer of NABJ.

"You know, I don't attach any genius to any of this," he said in 1999, as a retrospective of his photography was about to open in Detroit. "It was a matter of surviving. Staying alive," David Lyman quoted him in the Detroit Free Press. "The joy for me right now is waking up every morning and seeing all the light coming in. I usually go to the piano to compose or write poetry, so there's something to do every day. Depression could slip in right now, at my age. My kids are stretched all over the world. But the minute that starts, I start doing something and it evaporates.

"I'm a little amazed that I've done all this. But it's not as monumental as it appears to be. It's just doing things, you know? I think a lot of people could do a lot of things if they just tried."

At 11 p.m. Eastern time, news of Parks' death had not made the New York Times Web site. It was prominently noted on the Web sites of the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, which posted a staff-written obit at 5:18 p.m. Pacific time and included a photo gallery. The Chicago Tribune Web site translated Parks' passing as "Director of 'Shaft' Dies."

The Kansas City Star led its home page with the news, including a guest book and a photo gallery. Its headline was "Gifted artist leaves his mark on America" and the site included a film clip of Parks receiving the NAMME award. Parks was from Fort Scott, Kan.

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site BugMeNot.com provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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