Most people will remember Gordon Parks for his many achievements in various fields. I will miss Gordon’s wry sense of « Blues humor ». Underneath his suave, sophisticated sense of personal style was a « race man » in the old school sense – a man who was fully aware of the traps of racism that lay in his path as he forged ahead. He also knew that much of the African-American tribe would be judged by his actions and so he sought to achieve a level of excellence in all that he did. At the same time, he was motivated to create personal art, that is, expressions of art that came from his individual sense of beauty. Finally Gordon Parks managed to marry an African-American sensibility with the commercial demands of the mainstream. I hope that we as a people have moved past that juncture but without Gordon’s presence, that achievement would still be a challenge and not an historic accomplishment.
The following excerpt comes from one of the many interviews with Gordon for the documentary Half-past autumn: the life and works of Gordon Parks that I produced for HBO.
Since you didn’t have a lot of art in your early life, when did the desire to actually make something or create art start for you?
I can’t remember having been inclined to be an artist or anything of that sort. [LAUGHS] Yeah, I do remember – we had an old upright piano I used to plunk on, you know, and at 6 years old my father didn’t like the idea that a boy played the piano for some reason or another. He would rather have me been in the fields, feeding the horses, the chickens– and the cows and doing things of that sort.
The only time I really was allowed to play when my mother was around, and she insisted that if I wanted to play, that I play! And my mother was the boss! When Sarah Parks says something, that’s the way it was! For me, for my brothers and sisters and [LAUGHS] for my father! Okay, Sarah that’s what you want, that’s the way it was!
I do remember having an experience once in my father’s cornfield. June bugs were buzzing and I remember that moment. It struck me that it was symphonic music. And I often think of that today. Because I had never heard a symphony orchestra and never dreamt of even writing a symphony or a piano concerto or anything of that sort. The poetry that I heard was not certainly by Langston Hughes or Pablo Neruda. It was on Christmas and Valentine cards and birthday cards, so I wasn’t exposed to much literature, and in the high schools they didn’t– in Fort Scott, at least, they didn’t expose you to literature and I think that I would have been absolutely shocked to have seen a black writer or composer during my studies at high school.
So where did the art come from?
Today I look back and wonder about where it all came from myself. Very often I’ve been referred to as a Renaissance Man. Well, I don’t really buy that. I think that what I’ve accomplished I accomplished through trial and error, and one thing led to another. It was just a matter of survival, to tell you the truth, rather than any Renaissance situation. When I first started into photography, which made everything else possible, I took the camera up as sort of a lark at first. Then I realized shortly after that it could become a weapon against bigotry – against what I disliked or liked about the universe! And once I was on my way, and was accepted into the journalistic field and world, other things opened up for me! But music was always there; it’s been there since I was 6 years old. Painting was always there but I never had a chance to execute it as a child.
Was music the first art that you loved?
I would say that basically music was the first thing that I was attracted to.
I probably was attracted to the beautiful prairies of Kansas and the great sunsets over my father’s barns and things of that sort. It struck me but I didn’t absorb it, not until later on when I went back to Kansas, years later, on an assignment from Life Magazine to re-capture my childhood. Then I realized what had really inspired me later on because all these things lay deep inside me and I had no way to express them.
But now things were opening up for me, and I realized then after I became rather successful in photography and then later on writing, that you could just about do anything you want to do if you want to do it badly enough.
But music didn’t obviously provide you the same ability in the survival mode that photography ultimately did.
I accepted music just as a pleasure. Listen, I heard choirs sing in church, at Sunday school. That was all seeping in. A little later at the junior high school where I went I played for a little orchestra that we’d formed, and that was my first taste of being a performer, but it didn’t sink in deeply. But when I look back I realize all that was doing something to me. I hadn’t really thought about it, but the music had probably the initial effect before anything visual did, cause I had never dreamed that I would have a camera. I didn’t even know what a camera was! I certainly hadn’t thought of a camera as an instrument which I could work with.
So we talked about surviving using art for survival and photography was easier for you to make a living or was it that you thought the imagery was easier for people to see or understand?
Oh– photography came to me purely as an accident. I never dreamed of having a camera. I was a waiter on a railway running between St. Paul, Minnesota and Seattle, Washington and Chicago. So for some reason or another when I got to Seattle, Washington I had an extra 7 dollars and 50 cents from tips that I had made on the way, and I went into a pawnshop and purchased a cheap camera.
When you look at your work now, do you feel that you were in a position to effectively change things – race relationships and things in America with your photography?
I’m a little surprised now at all the letters and things I get from all around the world! I did a story on Flavio Da Silva, the little boy who was dying in Brazil who was poverty-stricken and taking care of his brothers and sisters; he’s only 12 years old. When the story was published, I brought him to America at the behest of American readers of Life magazine who said you can’t leave that kid there to die, and they in less than 3 weeks sent me over 30,000 dollars to go back and get him. Life gave me another 25,000 — I went back and I moved him out of the slums with his family
You believe that we can effectively change things. I mean Flavio’s situation – I mean you saved his life, but basically is his life better for what you’ve done?
Well, for one thing, what’s better about it– Flavio lived! Even if he just alone had lived, it would have been all right. But the camera was able to awaken people to the needs of poverty-stricken people! And the very fact that within 3 weeks 30,000 dollars had come in nickels, dimes, quarters, checks to me to go back and get that boy and rescue his family out of, out of the favella. And the letters that I get say that that story changed my whole way of thinking about poverty and about people who are inflicted with poverty.
You believe that we still have to keep trying.
Well, yes! You keep trying! You never give up; you always have an optimistic viewpoint.
Where did that come from though? Do you think from your parents?
It’s not so much confidence as it is curiosity and knowing that the capability is there – if you try. If you fail, you fail. But nothing is better than a good try – that’s what my father used to tell me – try!
And that’s what I’ve done with practically everything! I didn’t know I could write; I didn’t know I could become a photographer; I didn’t know I could compose; I didn’t know I could write poetry or direct films. When I directed my first film, which is The Learning Tree, I had no idea that I could do it before I was given the chance to do it.
It’s the way I have been with everything – from my first work on the piano – work composing; if Bach did it; if Beethoven did it — Beethoven and Vivaldi did it — why can’t I do it? That’s the way I’ve always thought about everything. And painting – I feel the same way. Poetry I feel the same way. I have my mentors–; I remember you know reading Richard Wright’s Twelve Millions Black Voices which was my first Bible, and– I said God– maybe I can write like that!
For a black man at that time taking those kind of chances and possibly failing…what did you feel about that?
Well, to be very honest, I never thought about failure and I knew I didn’t want to fail. I know my mother and father and brothers didn’t want me to fail. I was the youngest; success had been instilled in me; that is, the need for success.
Well, that was telling me something. Try – try a little harder. When the first– the camera thing came along, well– my God! I landed an FSA – the people I worshipped — I landed there! Well by this time you’re realizing that hey, you’re the only Black photographer on the FSA staff, and you made it with, with Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and all the rest of the great photographers on the staff and– then you went to Vogue as the only black photographer on Vogue–;
So by the time I got to Life Magazine, I was the only photographer on Life Magazine staff although I didn’t feel that I was the best; I figured I was in big company at Life Magazine with Cappa and all the rest of them there. I felt…well; I’ve had experience with documentaries with Roy Stryker. They have not had it. I’ve had experience in fashions at Vogue with Alexander Lieberman and there wasn’t a fashion photographer on Life Magazine.
And– now it was up to me to explore the fields with my camera that I felt that I could do it better than they could — because I was Black! — which was poverty; which I experienced; which was racism. And so in a way– although I went in feeling a little shaky, I had enough confidence in myself to know that I could make it, and I had some things going for me that they didn’t have! So– actually I was way ahead, and there was no reason in the world why I shouldn’t have confidence in myself.
You didn’t feel the pain of failing?
Well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t have time to think about the pain of failure, because failure was not on my mind. You know Sarah Parks had told me way back that don’t come home crying because you’re discriminated against or you didn’t get this or you didn’t get that because you’re Black. If a white boy can do it, I want you to do it better. That was her, her credo. You know? And that’s what I followed!
So you had to have this confidence. I had the same confidence riding a horse when I was a kid on my father’s little farm, you know. I could ride well! You know? And I only rode well because my father showed me how to my feet in the stirrups and, and to keep my heels down and my head’s up! [laughs]I remembered those things! And I could think about that when I went to Life Magazine and keep [laughs]heels down and head’s up, you know, and, and watch everything – move ahead. You can’t be just as good as they are, hear? You gotta be better if you’re gonna exist here, and I knew that.
Do you get tired of the double standard?
I never let the double standard bother me, because I do not even today think that there’s something that I cannot – that I can’t do something that anybody else has done – if I am given the time and the wherewithal to do it.
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