Gordon Parks - African American Photographer

Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was born in Ft. Scott, KS. The accomplished African American photographer only spent about 15 years in St. Paul, but it was there his inspiration and passion was formed.

Parks was sent to St. Paul to live with a sister and brother-in-law after his mother died in 1928. Parks initially attended an African American school in Ft. Scott, but all the Black schools there were closed because the city was too small for segregated schools. He enrolled in Mechanic Arts High School after moving to St. Paul, but left the house after a confrontation with his brother-in-law. Homeless, he began to search for jobs working for anyone who would hire him. Over the years he worked in brothels, and as a singer, a piano player, a bus boy, a traveling waiter, and a semi-pro basketball player. Though he later returned to school, St. Paul Central High School, he was unable to finish.

His real career, though, began with the purchase of a camera. As a result of a random encounter in 1938 with a publication he picked up while on a North Coast Limited train on which he was working as a waiter and porter, his career was born.

On one of his working journeys from St. Paul to Seattle, in 1937, he saw a series of Farm Service Administration photographs (FSA) in a magazine. The photos inspired him to buy a camera in Seattle to see what he could make of the craft of photography. At one point he told an interviewer that he went out immediately after purchasing the camera and was photographing seagulls when he and the camera fell into the water. The camera was ruined but some of the film was salvaged and praise from others who saw the prints of his camera work inspired him to continue pursuing his passion of photography.

He began his photography career in St. Paul, joining the St. Paul Recorder as staff photographer; many of his early photos were portraits of graduates and local society women in the African American community. He once told an interviewer that he had “purchased a weapon [the camera] I hoped to use against a warped past and an uncertain future.”

One day in 1939, he walked into Frank Murphy’s department store at the corner of St. Peter and 5th Street in St. Paul, asking the owner to hire him to provide the store with fashion photographs. When told that all their photo work came out of New York and he was about to be ushered out the door, Murphy’s wife intervened by asking “how do you know he can’t do fashion work?” He was hired on the spot and soon became famous for his fashion photography; his work was later featured in Life and Vogue magazines among others, where he became the first Black photographer for both publications.

Circumstances brought Parks full circle from his first impressions of the magazine photos from the FSA. In 1941 he was awarded the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for Photography, the first African American to win the fellowship, and he joined the FSA as a photographer.

Self-taught, he learned photography by studying the images of other photographers and began to create his own style. He focused at first, literally, on images that portrayed African American life at work and home. One photograph, of a cleaner named Ella Watson, became an image that gained him a following. His work as a documentary photographer brought a new dimension to work done by the FDR era photographers. He concentrated on the family and work lives of Black America and brought these images to the public.

His dual career as a fashion photographer and a chronicler of Black work and poverty was unique. He traveled in different worlds for each shoot and his intensity and artistry was evident in the images of both cultures.