“Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter,” by Gordon Parks, District of Columbia, United States, Washington D.C., 1942.
This past summer, I read A Choice of Weapons, the memoir of legendary photographer Gordon Parks (1912-2006). Autobiographies are my favorite genre to read because—if it’s good—it allows me to get into the mind of the person. Whether they write the truth or not, whether they tell the whole story or not, it doesn’t matter. What I want is to know how that person thinks, especially with the benefit of hindsight, and to get a feel for their personality.
Parks is such an epic figure, both as a photographer and an individual, that I had great expectations for the book. And I’m happy to report that A Choice of Weapons exceeded all my expectations.
How was this achieved? In part because Parks is not just a pioneering photographer, but an incredibly talented writer. He knows how to tell a story. For instance, we learn through his beautiful prose all that was behind his impetus to become a documentarian photographer and civil rights advocate. He was born in Kansas and lived in a world of segregation and poverty, the extent of which might stun you. But he keeps you until page 174 (of this 274-page memoir) to hear about Parks’ initial interest in a camera.
Here’s an excerpt:
“I was born restless. As a child I would saddle a horse and roam the woods and countryside until dark, imagining myself some sort of adventurer, dreaming up situations for myself as I rode along, dressed in blue jeans and a pair of satin books I filched from my sister Cora’s closet. One day I was William S. Hart in search of a kidnapped sweetheart. The next day I was Hoot Gibson tracking a dangerous outlaw, or Tom Mix escaping from a band of murderous Indians. And there were times when I rode along quietly, searching deep into the woods for that exceptional something that I always felt awaited me. I enjoyed the loneliness that came over me at such times, feeling it somehow set me apart from ordinary ways and lives of other people. It lulled me into dreams that could only be fulfilled far beyond the Kansas cornfields and prairies. Now, at twenty-three, I was feeling this restlessness again.”
—from A Choice of Weapons, by Gordon Parks
In the throws of such restlessness, you then learn how Parks got a job as a waiter on a train and happened to thumb through a magazine that was left behind by the Pullman porter. The periodical included a portfolio of compelling images portraying migrant workers by Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, Ben Shahn and other Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers. The work moved Parks, and the serendipitous moment would change the course of his life forever. Parks would go on to become the first African American to work at LIFE magazine, as well as the first African American to write, direct and score a Hollywood film, with the hugely successful movie, Shaft (1971).
Parks’s legacy is preserved and shared with the public in exhibitions, books and multimedia through The Gordon Parks Foundation, which supports artistic and educational activities that propel, in Gordon’s words, “the common search for a better life and a better world.”
To experience Gordon Parks’s photographs first hand, see if the following exhibitions will be showing up in a museum near you:
- The Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville, NY, Must’ve Been a Wake-Dream: Guadalupe Rosales, September 6-October 18, 2019. For more, visit gordonparksfoundation.org/exhibitions
- Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX, Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950, September 14-December 29, 2019. For more, see cartermuseum.org
- Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, The Flavio Story, July 9-November 10, 2019. For more, go to getty.edu/museum/