Multimedia legend

The works of writer, photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks will be showcased by the State Museum and Writers Institute



All of the accolades, all of the attention, are taking their toll on Gordon Parks. They have become more than a flattering distraction, Parks acknowledges.

The 86-year-old artist, an American legend for more than a quarter century, acknowledges that all the fuss is wearing him down, as well as keeping him from completing or starting numerous projects.

During the past week, Parks has been forced to consult a team of physicians and to agree to have his heart and blood pressure monitored, because the stress has made him feel weak and rundown.

He's also recovering from surgery on both legs to repair Achilles tendons he tore running. While he's mending quickly, he rues that this will be the first winter in 38 years he has not skied the powdery slopes of Vail, Colo.

Parks apologizes for being under the weather, but perhaps that's what happens when an HBO crew invades your life to film a documentary about you, he muses. At the same time a career-spanning show of Parks' photography, "Half-Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks," is touring museums across the country, obligating Parks to leave his swank Manhattan apartment overlooking the East River for openings in Washington, D.C., and Detroit. He has agreed this spring to receive an honorary degree at Boston University, marking the 40th doctorate for a man who never finished high school.

"It's flattering, of course, and it's very gratifying," says Parks during a telephone interview last week. "But I think I'll close off the doctorates after this one."

"Forty is a nice round number, it seems to me," he adds, chuckling. "It's a problem knowing what to do with all of the awards."

Racial barriers

Parks will be in Albany on Wednesday for a screening of his 1969 semi-autobiographical film, "The Learning Tree," the first major Hollywood movie directed by a black person but hardly the first racial barrier Parks shattered. His visit here, co-sponsored by the State Museum and the New York State Writers Institute, occurs while 10 of Parks' photos of Malcolm X are on display at the museum as part of a larger exhibit of African-American photographers.

Two other prominent Parks films, the 1976 documentary "Leadbelly" and the 1971 blockbuster "Shaft," will be shown Thursday and Friday at the University at Albany's Page Hall, but Parks mill be here only Wednesday. On Thursday he is obligated to be back in Manhattan, where he'll receive an award from the Urban League. He wasn't sure when asked last week about the exact name of the award.

While Parks has published nearly two dozen books, from "The Learning Tree" to poetry to an upcoming fictional biography of the renowned English watercolor painter J.M.W. Turner, he is being presented to the Capital Region audience primarily as a screenwriter, director and producer.

Observes Donald Faulkner, director of the Writers Institute: "Gordon Parks was like the Jackie Robinson of film. His history as a filmmaker is part of American history. He broke ground for a lot of people, Spike Lee, John Singleton, who are working successfully now."

The institute, founded by Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy, is an advocate for screen writing as literature. It's probably not a coincidence that Kennedy, an acclaimed novelist, also has written for the big screen.

"Slowly but steadily we're starting to look at screen-plays as a genre unto itself, in much the same way we see drama as literature," Faulkner says. "I think it's a function of the culture and a function of the time. Film is the 20th century's contribution to the world of letters." Gordon Parks' contributions to American culture, which span more than.60 years, can be observed in countless arenas.

Photographer for Life magazine. Composer, including the original ballet "Martin," a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., "which premiered in Washington, D.C., in 1989. Not to mention writer, poet, painter, lecturer, biographer, co-founder of Essence magazine. And, of course, filmmaker.

Parks, married and divorced three times (all three of his former wives attended the 1997 opening of his retrospective photo exhibit), has fathered four children, all of whom have also enjoyed success. His oldest, Gordon Parks Jr., killed in a plane crash in Africa 18 years ago, directed the hit movie "Superfly."

If you dare think this incredible journey has been easy for Parks, think again.

The youngest of a tenant farmer's 15 children, he was born Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kans. He is the only member of the family still alive, though one sister lived to be 103 and one brother reached 100.

His mother, Sarah, was a disciplinarian and devout Methodist who instilled in her youngest son a steadfast sense of fairness and justice that has carried him to the cusp of the 21st century.

Parks is not sure whom to credit for another of his childhood traits, his ability to spin a story, but it also has been with him for a lifetime. His grade school English teacher challenged her students to make up stories based on real events in their lives, and no one could compete with Parks.

"My stories were always chosen as the best," Parks remembers. "One of my friends claimed they were the best because I was the best liar in the class, and he may have been on to something."

Humble start

Parks' world was turned upside down when he was 15. His mother died and Parks was sent to St Paul, Minn., to live with a married sister and her husband. Parks and his brother-in-law did not see eye-to-eye, though, and before long he was on the street, homeless, without money or a game plan.

While working as a railroad car waiter, Parks picked up a magazine that had been discarded. It featured photographs of the rural poor by Dorothea Lange. The pictures were so powerful, he says, that he felt inspired.

"I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs," Parks says. "I knew at that point I had have a camera."

He purchased a used Voigtlander Brilliant in a pawnshop. An artist was born.

Parks bluffed his way into a fashion shooting job in St. Paul in 1940, and the following year he was hired as a photographer by federal Farm Security Administration to document examples of need in agricultural areas. He was the agency's first black photographer. Two years later he was in New York, shooting fashion for Glamour and Vogue.

It was at Life magazine where Parks' reputation was established. For 20 years, beginning in 1948, he was one of its most noted photojournalists, contributing fashion photos and stories from Paris one month, street gangs in Harlem the following month.

He continues to this day to take photos. He is completing a book of nudes titled "A Star for Noon, "photos of some people he knows, other people he doesn't. It also will include sunsets and other nature shots, some of Parks' poetry, and in the back of the book there will be a compact disc containing music composed by Parks for cello and orchestra.

All in all, a unique multimedia presentation. And an accurate reflection of Parks' many talents.

Yet it seems he is the last one to trumpet his own work. He creates, he says, because it would be wrong not to.

"Whatever comes up, whatever comes along, that's what I do. There's not much time for idleness," Parks observes. "You get put on this planet to give something back to it, and that's what I try to do."

Copyright 1999, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Gordon Parks
Writers Online Magazine Article