On Tuesday, March 7, I sat in a Columbia University classroom with Harlem’s picture men on my mind.
Whenever I am in Harlem, the heart of the Black Renaissance in culture, arts and expression, I think about Gordon Parks and James VanDerZee – the picture men — VanDerZee for his portraits and Parks for his photojournalism.
Since the age of 11, I’ve wanted to be a “picture man,” and Parks was always one of my idols.
I learned about F-stops and shutter speed, darkroom printing and composition from Walter M. Bryant and Llewellyn Berry in the District of Columbia public school system.
But I learned from Parks about the power of cameras as a weapon against injustice.
He rose from extreme poverty and segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas, to become one of the nation’s most distinguished artistic and journalistic icons.
Parks documented the tribulations and triumphs of black America as a photojournalist for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Life magazine and Vogue, before becoming Hollywood’s first major black artist to produce and direct a film in 1969 with “The Learning Tree.” He went on to direct the hit “Shaft” and the sequel “Shaft’s Big Score” in 1971 and 1972 respectively.
I fully expected to see Parks while I was in New York earlier this month. I considered him one of my mentors, always there and willing to help.
I remember well the first time I met him, in May of 1990 at the JW Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C. Parks was one of the first seven inductees to the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame and I spoke to him briefly.
Earlier that year, he helped mentor many black photographers, an inspirational force behind the scenes and the author for the introduction of the book “Songs of My People,” a portrait of American blacks. Published in February 1992, the project featured the work of more than 50 black photojournalists, many of whom were NABJ visual task force members.
Delores Johnson — formerly with The Kansas City Star, now, with The Virginian-Pilot — photographed Parks in April 2004, at what is believed to be his last extended photo session.
Parks was the first black photographer to penetrate through racial barriers at Life magazine and many other agencies. During his photo session with Johnson, he recalled how some whites would not allow him to photograph them, how he was often turned away because of the color of his skin.
In one of his autobiographies, “A Choice of Weapons,” he says his mother “placed love, dignity and hard work over hatred, she always told me that I could do whatever little white boys did and that I had better do it better.”
In 1942, Parks photographed Ella Watson, a government charwoman (cleaning lady), forever captured as the American Gothic, reminiscent of Grant Wood‘s famous 1930 painting with an Afro-centric twist.
Parks often recalled photographing the civil rights movement for Life magazine noting that “it was my blackness that enabled me to approach a situation in a much more casual way.”
During his 2004 photo session, he discussed his burial plans.
“Both of his parents are buried in the Fort Scott cemetery, which is still very segregated,” Johnson said. Parks will be buried there Thursday with his parents.
Johnson, like so many others, recounts “how incredible his mind was despite his body’s decline. He was very tired and weary, and I literally sat at his feet as he recounted his life and the driving forces behind him leaving.”
Anthony Bannon, Director of the George Eastman House Collection, agrees.
“I never thought about him dying, he seemed ageless and truly his talents knew no bounds. He surely was the life of the party, he was the brightest and best looking. Once someone met him they would never forget him, once someone saw his work — photograph or film or poem — they would never forget it.”
I did not get to see or talk with Gordon Parks when I visited New York City on March 7. Parks died that day at the age of 93.