Originally created 03/09/06

Gordon Parks, photographer and filmmaker, dies at 93



NEW YORK - Gordon Parks' groundbreaking journey from poor high-school dropout to black pioneer left a legacy of stark and unblinking photographs, genre-forging movies, novels, poetry, music and even a ballet.

"I think most people can do a whole awful lot more if they just try," Parks told The Associated Press in 2000. "They just don't have the confidence that they can write a novel or they can write poetry or they can take pictures or paint or whatever, and so they don't do it, and they leave the planet dissatisfied with themselves."

Parks, the first black American photojournalist for Life magazine and the first leading black filmmaker with movies such as "The Learning Tree" and "Shaft," died Tuesday at his home in New York, according to a former wife, Genevieve Young, and nephew Charles Parks. He was 93.

"Gordon was the ultimate cool," said Richard Roundtree, who starred in 1971's "Shaft," which spawned a series of black-oriented films. "There's no one cooler than Gordon Parks."

Parks covered everything from fashion to sports during his 20 years at Life from 1948 to 1968, but was perhaps best known for his gritty photo essays on the grinding effects of poverty in the United States and abroad and on the spirit of the civil rights movement.

"Those special problems spawned by poverty and crime touched me more, and I dug into them with more enthusiasm," he said. "Working at them again revealed the superiority of the camera to explore the dilemmas they posed."

In 1961, his photographs in Life of a poor, ailing Brazilian boy named Flavio da Silva brought donations that saved the boy and purchased a new home for him and his family.

"Gordon was one of the magazine's most accomplished shooters and one of the very greatest American photographers of the 20th century," said Life's managing editor, Bill Shapiro. "He moved as easily among the glamorous figures of Hollywood and Paris as he did among the poor in Brazil and the powerful in Washington."

"The Learning Tree" was Parks' first film, in 1969. It was based on his 1963 autobiographical novel of the same name, in which the young hero grapples with fear and racism as well as first love and schoolboy triumphs. Parks directed and wrote the score.

In 1989, "The Learning Tree" was among the first 25 American movies to be placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. The registry is intended to highlight films of particular cultural, historical or aesthetic importance.

Parks directed "Shaft" and a sequel, "Shaft's Big Score," in 1972, and that same year his son Gordon Jr. directed "Superfly." The younger Parks was killed in a plane crash in 1979.

In addition to novels, poetry and his autobiographical writings, Parks' writing credits include a 1971 book of essays called "Born Black"; "A Hungry Heart: A Memoir"; and "Eyes With Winged Thoughts," featuring his poetry and photographs.

Parks' other film credits include "The Super Cops" in 1974 and "Leadbelly" in 1976. He also wrote musical compositions including "Martin," a ballet about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Parks was born Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kan., the youngest of 15 children. In his 1990 autobiography, "Voices in the Mirror," he remembered it as a world of racism and poverty, but also a world where his parents gave their children love, discipline and religious faith.

"Nothing came easy," Parks wrote. "I was just born with a need to explore every tool shop of my mind, and with long searching and hard work. I became devoted to my restlessness."

Some highlights of photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks' career:

Photojournalism:

Life magazine, 1948-68

Films:

Flavio, 1964 (short documentary)

The Learning Tree, 1969

Shaft, 1971

Shaft's Big Score, 1972

The Super Cops, 1974

Leadbelly, 1976

Solomon Northup's Odyssey, 1984 (TV film)

Books:

The Learning Tree, 1963

A Choice of Weapons, 1966

Voices in the Mirror, 1990

Half Past Autumn, 1997

A Star for Noon, 2000

A Hungry Heart: A Memoir, 2005

Eyes With Winged Thoughts, 2005

Other:

Martin, 1989 (Ballet)