GRAND RAPIDS, MI.- Gordon Parks (19122006) was the first African-American photographer to gain an international reputation in the twentieth century. Prior to his recognition after World War II, African-American photographers were restricted to studio portraiture in black communities. Parks opened the field for African-American photographers with his accomplishments in documentary and fashion photography. His distinguished work for Life magazine was a pivotal influence on a new generation of black photographers who recorded the events of the Civil Rights Movement.
Parks was born the youngest of fifteen children in the small prairie town of Fort Scott, Kansas. When his mother died in 1927, he was sent to live with his sister in St. Paul, Minnesota, where his brother-in-law turned him out when he was still a teenager. Homeless on the winter streets of Minnesota, he survived through jobs as a dishwasher, busboy, and piano player barely managing to earn a living. He eventually got a steady job with the railroad as a dining car waiter.
During one of his runs on the transcontinental train from Chicago to Seattle he picked up a magazine left by a passenger. It featured images from the Farm Security Administration of the desperate rural poverty of the Great Depression by photographers Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and John Collier. Seeking to find his own voice, Parks purchased a camera for $7.50 in 1938.
The first photographs he shot revealed a significant talent. He quickly sought opportunities to work as photographer and ways to make a living in the profession. In 1940, laid off his job, hungry and desperate, he walked into a stylish dress shop in St. Paul and told the owners he wanted to do fashion photography. They gave him a chance and displayed the photographs he took in the store window. They caught eye of Marva Louis, wife of the champion boxer, Joe Louis. She invited Parks to work in Chicago and there he won a Julian Rosenwald Fellowship and a job with the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C.
In 1944 Parks rented a room at Harlems YMCA and began looking for work in New York. He took his fashion photographs to Harpers Bazaar. They were impressed but explained that as a Hearst organization, they were restricted from hiring Negroes. Parks went to his friend Roy Stryker from FSA who sent him to Edward Steichen who scribbled down a name and gave it to Parks. Go see this man at Vogue! That afternoon Vogue magazine hired Gordon Parks. During the next four years, he traveled to the worlds fashion capitals on assignment for the magazine while continuing to work independently on other subjects that also interested him.
In 1948 he was hired by Life magazine. Gordon Parks was the first African-American photographer for Life, the publication - more than any other - that elevated the art of photography in the minds of the American public. Parks' work and life as an artist during the next five decades continued to expand. His photographs of the 1960s and 70s are compelling images of America in an era of social change. He wrote books, composed music, and became one of the first African-American filmmakers to win major awards. Gordon Parks died in 2006 leaving a body of photographic works of prodigious significance.
Organized by the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the exhibition America: Black and White consists of thirty-four photographs, including rare vintage prints recently acquired by the museum. The exhibition coincides with the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther Kings "I Have a Dream" Speech of August 28, 1963, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. A rare Parks photograph of King giving the speech is in the museums collection and included in the exhibition.