This five-volume collection surveys five decades of Gordon Parks’ photography. It is the most extensive publication to document his legendary career. Widely recognized as the most important and influential African-American photographer of the twentieth century, Parks combined a unique documentary and artistic style with a profound commitment to social justice.
Working first for the Farm Security Administration and later for Life Magazine, he specialized in extended-narrative picture stories on difficult subject matter. Covering crime, poverty, segregation, the politics of race and class, and controversial personalities, Parks became legendary for his ability to meld penetrating insight with a lyrical aesthetic. He was thus able to introduce a broad and diverse public to people, issues and ideas they might otherwise have ignored. Parks was remarkably versatile, traveling the world to photograph news events and fashion, as well as the worlds of art, literature, music, theatre and film. Later in life, he reconceived his vision in fundamentally personal and poetic terms, producing color photographs that were allusive rather than descriptive, symbolic rather than literal.
Parks gave his mother credit for his strength and tenacity, writing, “She had given me ambition and purpose, and set the course I had since traveled.”5 Between 1940 and 1954, he challenged the prevailing depiction of diverse American cities and foreign cultures by producing compositions that showed people’s passion and imagination. The United States was undergoing transformations of many kinds and in many ways, from a segregated society to an integrated one, and with the possibilities of new employment and education as a result of the G.I. Bill, there was hope for all Americans. Europe was rebounding after the devastation caused by the war. Government agencies, the fashion industry, and large corporations recruited photographers to record these changes. Indeed, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey hired Parks for its own project, documenting “the face of America.” Soon international and domestic picture and fashion magazines, such as Life, Look, Vogue, and Ebony, were hiring more and more photographers to cover world and local events with their cameras—the aftermath of the war, civil and human rights struggles, business, lifestyle, and culture.
Parks took notice after leaving Standard Oil. He began freelancing, publishing his photographs within the pages of these magazines. Of particular interest to him were images of family life, men at work, and portraits of beautiful women. He was also committed to visualizing the stories that fueled the nation’s transformation.
Excerpt from “To One Who Moves With The New Tide,” Gordon Parks: Collected Works (Volume II)