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GORDON PARKS | 1912-2006

Photographer Documented Poverty's Toll

March 08, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Gordon Parks, who became the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine in the late 1940s and broke more ground in Hollywood two decades later as the first black person to direct a major studio film, "The Learning Tree," followed by the landmark black private eye movie "Shaft," has died. He was 93.

Parks, who also carved out niches as a novelist, memoirist, poet and composer, died Tuesday in New York, his nephew, Charles Parks, told The Times. Parks had been in failing health for some time, but the cause of death was not reported.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Parks obituary -- The obituary of photographer Gordon Parks in Wednesday's Section A incorrectly reported that he produced and directed the 1971 film "Shaft." It was produced by Joel Freeman.

Although his films widened his fame, it was as a photographer and social documentarian that Parks first made his mark as an artist and achieved his greatest acclaim.

From a clapboard house in a segregated town in rural Kansas to a high-rise Manhattan apartment with a panoramic view of the East River, he covered a lot of ground on his way to becoming one of America's foremost photojournalists.

Parks, who once played piano in a Minneapolis brothel and worked as a waiter on a railroad dining car, was a self-taught photographer. He was equally at ease documenting a chain gang in Alabama and photographing Manhattan socialite Gloria Vanderbilt or a Paris fashion model.

As a staff photographer at Life for more than two decades, Parks shot more than 300 major assignments, including acclaimed photo essays on segregation in the Deep South (1956), the slums of Rio de Janeiro (1961) and the Black Muslims (1963).

He also shot intimate portraits of celebrities, ranging from Muhammad Ali to Barbra Streisand. But poverty and powerlessness were frequent themes in his work.

His photo essay "Freedom's Fearful Foe: Poverty" in a 1961 issue of Life examined the Da Silvas, an impoverished Rio de Janeiro couple whose young son, Flavio, was dying of bronchial asthma and malnutrition.

The public responded with donations and offers of adoption, and the Children's Asthma Research Institute in Denver offered free treatment. Parks, who kept in touch with his young subject, wrote and directed a 1964 documentary on the boy as well as writing the award-winning 1978 biography "Flavio."

In documenting the Black Power movement in the 1960s, Parks gained unprecedented access to the Black Muslims and the Black Panthers and produced memorable photo essays on both organizations.

"The black militants wanted their voices heard by a lot of people, and Life wanted to get their stories," Parks told Britain's Guardian newspaper in 1993. "Life tried without me at first -- they sent white photographers, but they couldn't get into the groups. So both of them realized that they had to trust me."

After black rioting in the 1960s, Parks documented the poverty and racism that were at the root of the unrest with his 1968 Life photo-story on the Fontenelles, a poverty-stricken family living in a filthy, rat- and roach-infested brick tenement in Harlem.

Parks' Life magazine assignments were not without risks. While covering the civil rights movement and other events in the South for the publication, he was twice threatened with lynching. And after he wrote a piece on the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X and the FBI learned of a plan to murder the photographer, Life sent Parks' family abroad and put him under 24-hour armed guard at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

In 1997, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., launched the career-spanning show "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks," which toured museums across the country.

Tom Bamberger, adjunct curator of photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1998 that Parks was a significant figure in photography. "He epitomizes the worldview that all people, regardless of differences, have more in common than what separates them," Bamberger said.

Parks had a second successful career as an author, beginning in the late 1940s with two instructional photography manuals. Among his other books are "Shannon," a historical novel about Irish immigrants; "Gordon Parks: A Poet and His Camera"; "Born Black," a collection of essays on personalities in the civil rights movement; and three memoirs -- "A Choice of Weapons," "To Smile in Autumn" and "Voices in the Mirror."

"The Learning Tree," Parks' semiautobiographical novel about a smart and sensitive 15-year-old boy who experiences racism, love and loss in a Kansas town in the 1920s, became a 1963 bestseller.

With support from actor-filmmaker John Cassavetes, whom Parks had photographed for Life and who wanted barriers against blacks in Hollywood eliminated, Parks was hired by Warner Bros.-Seven Arts Studio to write, direct, score and executive-produce the 1969 screen version of "The Learning Tree."

In 1989, the movie was among the first 25 films honored by the U.S. Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry.

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