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A Camera, a Craft and a Cause : VOICES IN THE MIRROR By Gordon Parks (Doubleday: $22.95; 368 pp.)

November 04, 1990|Charles Johnson | Johnson is author of "Middle Passage" (Macmillan) and "Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970" (Indiana University Press). and

For nearly half a century we have come to expect the remarkable from Gordon Parks. Although he never finished high school--poverty and the Depression prevented that--he has received more than 50 honorary doctorates and awards, among them the National Medal of Art. His career as a photojournalist includes such landmarks as being the first black photographer for Vogue and Life magazines. What's more, he was the first black director in Hollywood, and made respected contributions to the fields of fiction (his novels include "The Learning Tree" and "A Choice of Weapons"), poetry, ballet and opera.

Never one to disappoint us, Parks, 77, now offers his autobiography, "Voices in the Mirror," an engrossing, wise and often wonderful melange of American cultural history, social commentary and a portrait of the black artist as a protean creator.

Born in 1913, Parks spent his childhood years in Fort Scott, Kan., the youngest boy in a family of 15 children. After his mother's death, he was sent to Minnesota to live with his sister, but was soon kicked out on the street by her intolerant, bullying husband. Parks rode trolley cars all night to escape the cold, washed dishes in a beanery, played the piano in brothels for tips, and consumed the works of Sinclair Lewis and James Joyce on his own. He even hopped a freight to Chicago to try his luck there (a friend's legs froze before they arrived).

Despite a rough-and-tumble young manhood, when "trouble was . . . coming in measured doses, and from all directions," Parks never allowed hardship to dilute his dreams or faith in himself. During his time as a waiter on the North Coast Limited, he "read every magazine I could get my hands on," periodicals left behind by rich, white passengers.

Parks was so impressed by the documentary photos of migrant workers he discovered in these magazines, and by the heroism of a photographer who defied death to film the Japanese bombing of a U.S. gunboat, that "From that moment I was determined to become a photographer. Three days later I bought my first camera at a pawnshop for $7.50 . . . I had bought what was to become my weapon against poverty and racism."

Yet his artistic trials had just begun. "In my formative years," he writes, "I was ill-prepared, and I tried to make up for that by exploring every possibility. If one failed me I turned to another, but I was never a dabbler. I gave all of myself to every effort, and I still do."

With his camera and a great deal of chutzpah, the inexperienced Parks lied his way into his first fashion-photography job, then (after one serious blunder) proved his ability to perform. By always reaching for more challenging assignments, and testing his talent in every possible direction, he produced works that earned him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, which placed him on the staff of the Farm Security Administration as a documentary photographer and prepared the way for five years on Vogue and a globe-trotting career with Life, leading to some of the most fascinating journalism of the 1960s and '70s.

"Voices in the Mirror" brings a reader face-to-face with the celebrities Parks met, and into the lives of people unknown--the sharecropper Willie Causey, the poverty-stricken Flavio da Silva dying in Catacumba, the Harlem gangster Red Jackson--before he made them famous. And in one remarkable word-photo, he introduces us to Malcolm X (two days before his death) confessing, "I did things as a Muslim that I regret now. I was just a zombie--like all the rest of them. I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march."

While his literary snapshots enhance this autobiography, it is Parks who ensorcells us most, especially in his triumphant return to Fort Scott, to film his novel, "The Learning Tree." He moved on--which seems to be the law of his life--to do four other Hollywood movies ("Shaft," "Leadbelly") and to measure his creative powers against the barriers erected to keep black men down. And at no time during this inspiring, artistic odyssey does Parks lose sight of our shared humanity. With wisdom, he writes:

"I have never glorified at being the first black photographer to enter those closed doors at Life magazine, Vogue or any of the other places. I like to feel they were opened for my race as well as for me. I did realize that I was making fresh tracks, but I never carried the responsibility around on my back like a sack of stones. I simply did my best without asking favors because I was black. Time and again those tracks have been filled, and this is reason to rejoice. Only through hard work did I gain a sense of security and independence."

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