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.
During World War II, Stryker brought Parks to work for him at the Office of War Information as a correspondent. He joined the staff of Life magazine in 1949, after working for both Vogue and Glamour. His successful foray into fashion photography, just as he was cutting his teeth on documentary work, made him an instant celebrity in a world in which he was a total stranger. That he excelled in both is a testament to his genius. Parks inspired a generation of photographers, both black and white. It wasn't just his work but also his determination and desire to reinvent himself that captured the imagination of so many. He never grew tired of pushing the envelope. For me, he demonstrated that respecting his subjects was the first step toward winning their confidence. Whenever possible, he became a part of the subject's environment: "I never showed up with a camera and started shooting. I wanted people to get to know me as a person," he said.
In Brazil to work on a story about poverty, he slept on the floor of a favela to document the life of an asthmatic boy named Flavio da Silva, going to a hotel once a week to change clothes and shower. His essay on Flavio brought in thousands of dollars, enabling Parks to bring the boy to the United States for treatment.
In 1956, when he and journalist Sam Yette were sent to Alabama to document the impact of segregation on the Causey family, they slept on a front porch. When he was sent to Italy to photograph Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, he took care not to invade the couple's privacy. All the world wanted to see a picture as proof of their controversial affair, and the couple usually took care not to be seen together. One day, however, when they forgot they were not alone, they embraced in the middle of the movie set. Parks, camera in hand, elected not to take the picture. "The golden moment was undeserving of betrayal," he said. Bergman and Rossellini were aware of his courtesy. The next morning, they invited him to bring his camera while they took a stroll together along the beach.
I was seven years old when Gordon Parks joined the staff of Life, and 12 when I got my own first camera. By that time, Parks had already discovered the wonders of Paris and beyond. At that point, my world didn't extend much farther than a few blocks beyond our front door on Baldwin Street on the east side of Detroit. The day I looked in the mirror and saw Gordon Parks looking back at me, I knew that anything was possible. I followed in his footsteps to France, Germany, and beyond as a staff photographer for Newsweek. Growing up, I'd thought that the only way a black man got to any of those places was by donning a uniform and becoming a soldier, as my father had done. Parks changed all that for me. He allowed me to explore the world on my own terms.
I cannot imagine that there is one black photographer, male or female, of my generation or later who doesn't feel the same way about Gordon. They may have developed a different sensibility about photography, but not about the man. Thanks to him, we're no longer an oddity in our own minds or in the eyes of the world. "Gordon Parks was like Rosa Parks," says the renowned jazz photographer Chuck Stewart. "A lot of us wanted to sit down, but she did it. There were black photographers before him, but he walked through the front door and did something."