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.
The pictures by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Carl Mydans, and other documentary photographers fascinated him. One day during a stopover in Seattle, he walked into a pawnshop and inquired about a camera in the window. The store's owner wanted $12.50 for the 35mm Voigtländer, but he accepted the $7.50 that Parks had to offer and threw in a couple rolls of film. Another customer showed Parks how to load it. When he got the film developed back in Minneapolis, the clerk at the Eastman Kodak store was so impressed that he offered to give Parks an exhibition.
After studying the fashion pictures he saw in a copy of Vogue left behind by a train passenger, Parks got up the nerve to walk into an exclusive women's store and ask if he could shoot fashion photos for them. After agreeing on the number of models and outfits, he was out the door to borrow a Speed Graphic camera from a friend and get a quick course on how to operate it. He returned to the store the next evening, ready to work. The confidence and poise he displayed impressed the owners, but in the lab disaster struck. All but one picture was double exposed, so he made a large print of that image and placed it on an easel at the entrance to the store so the owners could see it. They asked to see the others. Parks explained what had happened, adding that the others were better than the one he'd printed.
He was allowed to reshoot the images, and his career was launched. Marva Louis, the wife of the heavyweight champion Joe Louis, saw his work at the store and suggested that he move to Chicago, where she would help him get more work. With a new baby, the Parks family moved to Chicago. Once there, Parks started to shoot documentary work in earnest, focusing on the city's ghettos. That work earned him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, which brought with it the chance to do an internship in Washington, D.C., with the Farm Security Administration under Roy Stryker. The agency was already renowned for documenting poverty during the depression and launching the careers of the best photojournalists of the day. On his first day in Washington, Parks made a photograph of Mrs. Ella Watson, a black woman who had mopped floors for the government nearly all her life, posed with a mop in front of an American flag. He called it "American Gothic."