His death at age 93 marked the passing of a creative spirit of almost
incomprehensible scope. Here, one of the many photographers he inspired looks
at the work and world he left behind.
Gordon Parks was born November 30, 1912, the last of 15 children. When his mother, Sarah Parks, died after his 15th birthday, the family that had nurtured him lost its core. Young Gordon was sent to live in Minnesota with an older sister and her husband, who, for some reason, disliked him instantly. By the time Parks was 16, he was out on the street, riding the bus between St. Paul and Minneapolis to escape the frigid nights. His first real job was playing a piano in a brothel.
His formal education was over by the time he was 17. For the next twelve years he worked at a series of odd jobs that barely earned him enough to feed himself and provide some kind of shelter. The jobs included playing with a professional basketball team, washing dishes in a restaurant, and bussing tables at Minneapolis's Lowry Hotel, from which the Mutual radio network broadcast the sounds of the big bands of the day.
One of the band leaders, Larry Duncan, walked into the empty dining room, where Parks sat at the piano, playing a tune he had composed. Duncan was taken with the beauty of the composition and asked Parks what it was called. "'Lost Love,' and I wrote it," replied Parks. Over the objections of his father and at his mother's insistence, Parks had started taking piano lessons when he was six and had continued until his mother died. They were starting to pay off.
Parks played by ear, so Duncan had his arranger put the composition on sheet music, and it was played over the next Mutual broadcast. For a moment, Parks enjoyed instant celebrity and had the "questionable" honor of being the first black musician to play with a noted white orchestra, introducing their theme song on piano before they went on. His career as a musician was short-lived, however.
After gigs in Minneapolis and Kansas City, the band hit the road on a bus for New York. Duncan skipped out on the band when it reached the Big Apple, and Parks was stranded. After a few months of living hand to mouth, he turned to the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided plentiful meals and backbreaking work. Under the false illusion of security, he hopped a train to Minnesota and married his girlfriend, Sally Alvis. They moved to Philadelphia and lived there until the Conservation Corps job ended. Before long, they were back home with Sally's parents. Parks found a job waiting tables at St. Paul's Minnesota Club. His hard work brought him to the attention of one of the club's members, James Hill, president of Northern Pacific Railway. He suggested that Parks interview for a job with his company. Parks was soon making regular runs on the North Coast Limited between St. Paul, Chicago, and Seattle. On these runs, he collected magazines left behind by the passengers.