1913-2006 REST IN PEACE
Renaissance man Gordon Parks, who photographed the triumphs and tribulations of African-Americans and became Hollywood’s first major black film director with “The Learning Tree” and “Shaft,” died yesterday. He was 93. Parks, who also composed music for Duke Ellington and wrote fiction, died in his upper East Side apartment after a battle with cancer, relatives said. His son and daughter were at his side. “He was the real thing,” legendary New York sports photographer Marvin Newman said last night. “He broke a lot of taboos, a lot of ground.”
As an ace lensman for Life magazine between 1948 and 1968, Parks photographed high society as well as the underbelly of politics and poor American life. He also covered the civil rights movement, producing photos that crystallized its struggles and victories.
“He could mix stories about high fashion and the glamorous world he moved in with the gritty, more difficult subjects of racism and poverty that he knew firsthand and photographed with great sympathy,” said John Loengard, a fellow photographer and former Life picture editor.
Born the youngest of 15 children in Fort Scott, Kan., Parks found himself on his own as a 15-year-old after his mother died. He survived by working as a piano player in a brothel, a busboy and a professional basketball player before turning to photography at age 25.
“Nothing came easy,” Parks wrote in his autobiography. “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.”
He became the first African-American to work as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, honing his powerful documentary style.
In the late 1960s, Parks explored his talent for filmmaking, directing the movie “The Learning Tree,” based on the book about a child’s encounters with racism and puppy love.
He sparked the so-called “blaxploitation” genre with his groundbreaking 1971 film “Shaft.” The movie, which starred Richard Roundtree as smart, charismatic police detective John Shaft, was meant to give African-Americans a positive role model, Parks later said.
Throughout his career, Parks’ photos were shown in a number of top-shelf art venues, including a current exhibition of his work at the Howard Greenberg gallery on E. 57th St.
“You know, the camera is not meant just to show misery,” Parks said in a 1998 interview. “You can show things that you like about the universe, things that you hate about the universe. It’s capable of doing both.”
COURTSEY OF THE DAILY NEWS BY PHYLLIS FURMAN.