Gordon Parks (1912-2006): A renaissance man’s renaissance man

“As far as being a ‘renaissance man,’ I haven’t learned to spell the word yet,” Gordon Parks joked to me in 2000, when he had just released a new book of photography and poetry, an exhibit featuring his photography, music, films and novels was being presented in Exposition Park, and HBO was premiering a documentary exploring his pioneering and versatile achievements.

Parks died today in New York at the age of 93. His was an amazing life, and he was an extraordinarily modest man, as that Daily News interview in 2000, reprinted here, suggests:

When Gordon Parks was taking his prize-winning photos of the devastating effects of segregation in Alabama for Life magazine, or when he was conducting an orchestral concert of his own compositions in Venice in the 1950s, or when he was directing “The Learning Tree” from his own autobiographical novel for Warner Bros., he wasn’t considering the historical ramifications of his being the first African-American to break such ground.

“Everything I did was a means for survival, not necessarily genius,” Parks says matter-of-factly today. “I had to buy breakfast the next morning. It was a job; I wanted to try to excel. I wasn’t working for all black people – I was working for myself. What I was doing just so happened to help young black people.”

And we haven’t even gotten around to the three autobiographies and other novels and books of poetry; the Vogue fashion spreads; his influential film “Shaft,” which kick-started the blaxploitation movement; his ballet homage to Martin Luther King Jr. And there were numerous other highly politicized photo shoots that leapt out at readers from the pages of Life, including a profile of an impoverished Brazilian boy named Flavio that was transformed into a short film and inspired readers to send the child’s family money. Likewise, we haven’t mentioned the 45 honorary doctorates he has received – not bad for a guy who quit high school after a white teacher advised him to abandon his dreams of college.

“As far as being a ‘renaissance man,’ I haven’t learned to spell the word yet,” he adds with a laugh.

Despite Parks’ self-deprecating remarks, he is one of the country’s most versatile and enduring artists, and his work is receiving a long- overdue appreciation tonight – on his 88th birthday – when HBO presents “Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks.” A similarly titled exhibit of Parks’ multimedia productions is also currently on display at the California African-American Museum in Exposition Park.

“Half Past Autumn,” the film, not only takes note of his artistic and social achievements, but also delves into his similarly busy personal life, interviewing his three ex-wives who still seem to hold a fondness for him and children who wished he was around more.

“It’s sort of crowding a lot in an hour and a half,” Parks says, chuckling. “It got me to reflecting on areas of my life that I hadn’t thought too much about, like what my ex-wives thought about me, what my children actually thought about me. That’s a little hard to realize until you see it.” Of his children’s wistful complaints, he observes, “Well, I’m glad they did feel that way. I wouldn’t want them to want me away more.”

Parks grew up in Kansas at a time when bigotry was the rule – the only reason the local school was integrated was because the towns’ founding fathers didn’t want to pay to build another school, but blacks weren’t allowed to participate in any extra-curricular events. So Parks and friends formed their own basketball team. “The team came to be so well-recognized – the white team never won anything – that the population would come to meet the train when we’d come back from a game,” he recalls fondly.

Oh, that’s another of Parks’ achievements – he played semi-pro basketball when he moved to Minneapolis. “I have to admit, I was pretty good,” he says, betraying perhaps as much pride at that accomplishment as any of his others. “When I got to Minnesota, basketball on a real court was child’s play compared to the bushel basket in my back yard. I had dreams of one time of going with the Globetrotters – we played them once, twice, lost to them a couple of times.”

Minneapolis was where Parks embarked upon his career as a photographer and encountered the first proof in his life that racism didn’t have to be the status quo. Filled with hubris after having just processed his first rolls of film, he sauntered into an upscale women’s store and offered to shoot some fashion photos for the owner. The man, Frank Murphy, wasn’t interested, but Murphy’s wife, Madeline, challenged her husband: “How do you know he can’t shoot fashion?” she demanded, and he returned the next day to shoot some models. Only one photo from the shoot turned out usable, but it was enough to impress the Murphys.

“The fact that that woman opened her heart to me and gave me a chance made me realize that there were good people in the world,” Parks recalls. The two remained friends, and, he says, “I asked Madeline years later why she took a chance on me, and she said, ‘Oh, more than likely I was mad as hell at Frank that day.’ ” Parks laughs, adding, “I don’t know what possessed me to walk into that store; I can’t tell you even today why I did it – I hadn’t had a camera more than a short time.”

Before securing jobs at Life and Vogue, Parks shot photos for a visual essay on American culture for the Farm Security Administration. It was then that Parks created one of his most famous images – a washerwoman defiantly holding up her mop in front of an American flag, aping the painting “American Gothic.”

In 1956, Parks risked his neck to shoot the famous Life Magazine feature, “How it Feels to Be Black in America,” choosing a man in Alabama as the subject. Unwittingly, Parks opened his subject to persecution when the magazine’s bureau editor wasn’t around to protect him, as had been previously arranged.

“I’d always thought of him as a pretty nice guy,” Parks says. “He said he didn’t feel there was that much segregation down in the South. I got down there and found out that he had betrayed me – he didn’t betray me so much as he was frightened; he might find himself in trouble (with other whites) if he helped us. But he was supposed to help the guy I used as a focal point for the story and he went on vacation. He endangered my life and that man’s life. I was aware I was being followed (during the shoot), but I didn’t realize there was a lynch mob wanting to tar and feather me until my editors went down there. They talked to people and found out I had gotten out of town about three hours before they would’ve caught up to me.”

He also acknowledges that he was allowed to work under extraordinary circumstances. “When I went to Brazil for my photos of Flavio, I called Life and they said, ‘Stay as long as you like to get the story.’ Now, it’s, ‘Get back next week.’ But then, it was your story, you’d stick with it if it takes you a year. I did one story for Life on my favorite poets – at the end of the year, I handed in about 15 transparencies. They said, ‘That’s a year’s work?’ I said, ‘You asked me to think about it, and I re-created their poetry within my camera. That’s it.’ They said, ‘OK, fine.’ ”

Parks himself has no idea where his facility to succeed in so many art forms comes from, but says, “If I had my druthers, if Providence would assign two things to me, I’d say, I want to write poetry and compose music.”

In the course of his celebrated career, Parks has received numerous awards, beginning with the first Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in photography in 1942. In addition to the many doctorates universities have bestowed upon him, Muslim Elijah Muhammad and the Black Panthers tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit him as a spokesman for their causes.

Still, he insists simple recognition remains his greatest prize. “It still makes me surprised,” he says. “All those things come together mean one thing – that I worked hard.”

Even if Parks reduces his life to a cliche, it still feels heartfelt. “The most important thing I learned about life – it’s more important to give than receive; when I give someone something, I feel good,” he insists. “I receive a lot of stuff these days, but when I reach out and help people in the way that people helped me, it makes me feel good.”

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