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Gordon Parks

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Shaft / Shaft's Big Score! / Shaft In... This triple feature includes a trio of thrilling crime dramas that helped usher... more info $14.98was $14.98 Buy Now

Solomon Northrup's Odyssey... Famed photographer Gordon Parks directed "Solomon Northup's Odyssey" (1984). for... more info $14.95was $14.95 Buy Now

Learning Tree DVD Remember that special growing-up year in your life? When you had your first real... more info $19.99was $19.99 Buy Now

Also Known As: Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks Died: March 7, 2006
Born: November 30, 1912 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Fort Scott, Kansas, USA Profession: photographer, director, producer, screenwriter, composer, author, photojournalist, professional basketball player, pianist, poet, color and black-and-white cinematography consultant, actor, librettist, magazine editor, busboy, drug runner

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

With significant accomplishments to his credit as a photographer, journalist, filmmaker, screenwriter, novelist, poet, composer and librettist to his credit, Gordon Parks may well be the African-American Renaissance man par excellence. He has won over 20 awards and received 23 (as of 1995) honorary degrees in literature, fine arts and humane letters. Parks is reputed to be Hollywood's first black director of major films but he first gained acclaim as a preeminent photojournalist at LIFE magazine from 1948-68. His subjects included such diverse topics as the black Muslims, Ernest Hemingway's Paris and life in American ghettoes. "The Learning Tree", Parks' autobiographical novel about growing up black in 1920s Kansas, provided the foundation for his moving, sometimes didactic and stunningly photographed 1969 feature debut which he produced, wrote, directed and scored.In 1989, "The Learning Tree" was among the first 25 films deemed "culturally, historically, or esthetically significant" enough to be included in the National Film Registry for future preservation. Parks' second feature, "Shaft" (1971), actually had a far greater cultural impact. A major commercial success, the gritty NYC-lensed black...

With significant accomplishments to his credit as a photographer, journalist, filmmaker, screenwriter, novelist, poet, composer and librettist to his credit, Gordon Parks may well be the African-American Renaissance man par excellence. He has won over 20 awards and received 23 (as of 1995) honorary degrees in literature, fine arts and humane letters. Parks is reputed to be Hollywood's first black director of major films but he first gained acclaim as a preeminent photojournalist at LIFE magazine from 1948-68. His subjects included such diverse topics as the black Muslims, Ernest Hemingway's Paris and life in American ghettoes. "The Learning Tree", Parks' autobiographical novel about growing up black in 1920s Kansas, provided the foundation for his moving, sometimes didactic and stunningly photographed 1969 feature debut which he produced, wrote, directed and scored.

In 1989, "The Learning Tree" was among the first 25 films deemed "culturally, historically, or esthetically significant" enough to be included in the National Film Registry for future preservation. Parks' second feature, "Shaft" (1971), actually had a far greater cultural impact. A major commercial success, the gritty NYC-lensed black detective story was one of the key early films in the 70s "Blaxploitation" movement. "Shaft" generated a hit theme song, two sequels (the first, 1971's "Shaft's Big Score", was also helmed by Parks) and a TV series. Continuing to work in the action genre for the next several years, Parks displayed increasing technical and narrative proficiency and was rewarded with bigger budgets for his efforts. What was missing was the personal and committed elements in evidence in "The Learning Tree". He recaptured some of those qualities in "Leadbelly" (1976), a fine if somewhat sanitized biopic about legendary blues singer Huddie Ledbetter.

Perhaps Parks' most accomplished film, "Leadbelly" boasted a strong and charismatic central performance by Roger E. Mosley (best known as laid-back helicopter pilot T.C. on TV's "Magnum, P.I."), great music and awe-inspiring cinematography from Bruce Surtees. Produced by a tax shelter group and copyrighted by a Netherlands entity, the film failed to find the large audience it so richly deserved due partially to poor marketing and distribution but moreover because young modern filmgoers neither knew nor cared about the subject. This turned out to be Parks' swan song as a feature director.

Parks went on to write several volumes of poetry and fiction. An accomplished self-taught pianist, he composed a number of piano sonatas, a symphony and other works for the concert stage. Parks directed and composed music for several interesting projects for PBS in the 80s (the 1984 historical drama "Solomon Northrup's Odyssey" and the autobiographical documentary "Gordon Parks: Moments Without Proper Names" and ushered in the 90s with "Martin" (PBS, 1990), an original, five-movement ballet about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. Parks served as executive producer, director, composer, keyboardist and documentary photographer for this boldly ambitious project. Father of the late director Gordon Parks Jr, who was best known for "Superfly" (1972).

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Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

1.
  Leadbelly (1976) Director
2.
  The Super Cops (1974) Director
3.
  Shaft's Big Score! (1972) Director
4.
  Shaft (1971) Director
5.
  The Learning Tree (1969) Director
6.
  Martin (1990) Director
8.
9.
  Flavio (1961) Director

CAST: (feature film)

1.
2.
 Shaft (2000) Lenox Lounge Patron
3.
 50 Years of Action! (1986) Himself
4.
 Shaft's Big Score! (1972) Croupier
5.
 Shaft (1971) Harlem resident
9.
 Paul Robeson: Here I Stand (1999) Interviewee
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Milestones close milestones

:
From age 15 worked as a busboy in Chicago, dining car waiter, a piano player in a Minnesota bordello, a Harlem dope runner, a big-band singer and professional basketball player
:
Worked during the Depression for the Civilian Conservation Corps
:
Took up photography in the late 1930s
:
Worked with Roy Stryker at Farm Security Administration
1937:
First assignment as photographer of women's fashions for St Paul, Minnesota, store; worked as freelance fashion photographer in Minneapolis
:
Went to Washington, DC, where worked with Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein for the Farm Security Administration
1944:
Served as a correspondent with Office of War Information during WWII
:
Worked as a photographer for Standard Oil Company in New Jersey
1947:
Published first book, a non-fiction work entitled "Flash Photography"
:
Became first black photographer for Conde Nast's <i>Vogue</i>
:
Joined staff of <i>Life</i> magazine as a photographer; became <i>Life</i>'s first black staff photographer in 1952
1953:
Composed his first "Piano Concerto"
1954:
Began serving as a color and black and white consultant on motion picture productions in the USA and Europe
1961:
Film debut, directed and wrote documentary short, "Flavio"
1963:
Had his first novel published, the autobiographical "The Learning Tree"
1964:
Became an independent photographer and filmmaker
1967:
Composed "Tree Symphony"
1969:
Directed, produced, wrote and scored first feature film, "The Learning Tree"
:
Co-founded and served as editorial director of <i>Essence</i> magazine
1971:
Directed his commercial breakthrough feature, "Shaft"
1975:
Published a collection of his poetry and photographs entitled "Moments Without Proper Names"
1972:
First film appearance, as a croupier in his "Shaft's Big Score"
1984:
Named to the NAACP Hall of Fame
1984:
Directed and composed score for his first TV special, "Solomon Northrup's Odyssey", a historical drama presented on PBS's "American Playhouse"
1985:
Served as an informal consultant to director Steven Spielberg during the production of "The Color Purple"
1988:
Directed, composed the score, provided poems and appeared in "Gordon Parks: Moments Without Proper Names", an autobiographical documentary special on PBS
1990:
Executive produced, directed, composed the score, served as librettist and keyboardist, and provided documentary photography for "Martin", a five-movement ballet inspired by incidents in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr; broadcast on PBS
1992:
Provided the voice of Henry Highland Garnet for "Lincoln", a two-part, four-hour ABC documentary special about Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War
1992:
Provided photos of Malcolm for Spike Lee's biopic "Malcolm X"
1994:
Appeared in the documentary "Malcolm X: Make It Plain" on PBS's "The American Experience"
2000:
Was subject of the HBO documentary, "Half-Past Autumn: The Life and Times of Gordon Parks"
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Notes

Parks was awarded the first Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in Photography Award in 1942.

From PR from KCET Los Angeles for "Martin: A Ballet Tribute to Martin Luther King": "An accomplished self-taught pianist, he is the composer of "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra", "Tree Symphony", five piano sonatas (all performed in New York and Boston) and a work for piano and woodwinds."

Honored by the National Council of Christians and Jews in 1964.

Parks has been the recipient of numerous awards over the course of his long and spectacular career. A partial listing of the honoring institutions follow: Syracuse University School of Journalism (1964); Philadelphia Museum of Art (1964); New York Art Directors Club (1964, 1968); Frederic W. Brehm Award (1962); Carr Van Anda Journalism Award from the University of Miami (1964); Carr Van Anda Journalism Award from the University of Ohio (1970); named Kansan of the Year by Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas (1986); the 1972 Spingarn Award from the NAACP.

As of 1995, Parks had received 23 honorary degrees in literature, fine arts and humane letters. A partial listing of the institutions and the honorary degrees they granted follows: a degree from Syracuse University in 1963; a Doctor of Fine Arts from Maryland Institute in 1968; a Doctor of Fine Arts from Fairfield U and a doctorate from Boston U in 1969; a Doctor of Letters from Kansas State U in 1970; a Doctor of Humanities from St Olaf College in 1973; a Doctor of Fine Arts from Colby Coll and a Doctor of Literature from MacAlester Coll in 1974; a doctorate from Lincoln U in 1975; a Doctor of Humanities from Thiel Coll in 1976; a Doctor of Arts from Columbia Coll in 1977; a Doctor of Fine Arts from Rutgers U in 1980; a DFA from Pratt Institute Pratt Institute in 1981; a Doctor of Humane Letters from Suffolk U in 1982; a Doctor of Fine Arts from the Kansas City Art Inst in 1984; and a Doctor of Humane Letters from Art Center Coll of Design in 1986.

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Sally Alvis. Married in 1933; divorced in 1961.
wife:
Elizabeth Campbell. Married in 1962; divorced in 1973.
wife:
Genevieve Young. Book editor. Married on August 26, 1973; divorced in 1979; of Chinese-American ancestry.

Family close complete family listing

father:
Jackson Parks.
mother:
Sarah Parks. Died c. 1928.
son:
Gordon Parks Jr. Director. Mother Sally Alvis; born c. 1935; films include "Superfly" (1972), "Thomasine and Bushrod" and "Three the Hard Way" (both 1974); killed at age 44 in a 1979 airplane crash outside Nairobi, Kenya while scouting locations.
daughter:
Toni Parks-Parsons. Mother, Sally Alvis.
son:
David Parks.
daughter:
Leslie Parks. Mother, Elizabeth Campbell.
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Bibliography close complete biography

"Flash Photography"
"Camera Portraits: Techniques and Principles of Documentary Portraiture" Franklin Watts
"The Learning Tree" Harper & Row
"A Choice of Weapons" Harper & Row
"Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera" Viking
"Whispers of Intimate Things" Viking
"In Love" Lippincott
"Born Black" Lippincott
"Moments Without Proper Names" Viking
"Flavio" W.W. Norton & Co.
"To Smile in Autumn"
"Shannon"
"Voices in the Mirror" Nan A Talese/Doubleday
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