In 92 years of an incredibly full life, Parks has moved from a beginning of poverty in rural Kansas to a place in the history books as an award-winning photographer, writer, composer and filmmaker with 14 books, eight films, dozens of musical compositions, a ballet and countless photography exhibitions under his belt.
Parks was born as the youngest of 15 children on Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kan. Though his family was poor, he says that his parents taught him "how to live honorably and how to die honorably" as he attended a segregated elementary school and endured harsh racism at his integrated high school.
Parks' mother passed away when he was 16 years old, and he moved to Minneapolis to live with his sister. Soon after his arrival there, he was kicked out of the house by his brother-in-law, and it was then that his creative juices began to flow--albeit out of necessity. He took a job as a pianist at a local bordello, a job that eventually catapulted him into a music career with an all-white jazz band. Then he got another piano-playing gig on a transcontinental train line that ran between Minneapolis and Chicago.
It was on one of his train trips that his interest in photography peaked as he leafed through a magazine and was struck by haunting photos of migrant farm workers. He described these images as "stark, tragic images of human beings caught up in the confusion of poverty" in his 1990 memoir "Voices in the Mirror."
Parks quickly immersed himself in studying photography and visiting museum exhibitions. He was inspired by the work of contemporary, social-documentary photographers such as Ben Shahn, Jack Delano, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange, John Vachon and Walker Evans.
Parks soon purchased his first camera, a 7.50 Voightlender Brilliant and started snapping photographs of his surroundings. "[The camera] was to become my weapon against poverty and racism," he explains.
The Eastman Kodak Company happened upon Parks' first photographs and began displaying them in company show windows. Parks also tried his hand at fashion photography and was able to showcase his work in the window of a St. Paul, Minn., women's store. The rest, as they say, is history.
Parks began to cultivate two equally successful paths in his photography career--fashion photography and an incomparable documentary style of photography that depicted the lives of the poor and downtrodden.
Some photos Parks shot of Chicago's poor eventually earned him a 1941 Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, which resulted in an apprenticeship with Roy Emerson Stryker and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington. The FSA was commissioned with the task of calling attention to the plight of the nation's needy by providing a record of social and cultural conditions. While there, he shot what many consider his "signature" image, "American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942." The photo is a moving portrayal of a black charwoman holding her broom and mop in front of the American flag at the FSA building. When Parks showed Stryker the image, he was told, "Well, you're catching on, but that picture could get us all fired."
But Parks' photography career continued to thrive as he again worked with Stryker for the Office of War Information. He then was assigned to cover the 332nd Fighter Group, the nation's first squadron of black pilots, who were training in Michigan. Officials refused to let him follow the air corps to Europe when they were deployed, however, for fear of giving publicity to African-Americans in the war.
So once again, Parks hit the road and again assisted his FSA cohort Stryker with the Standard Oil (New Jersey) Photography Project, an undertaking that assigned some of the nation's best photographers to capture the small towns and industrial centers on film. Some of his most acclaimed work came from this project, including "Dinner time at Mr. Hercules Brown's Home, Somerville, Maine" (1944), "Grease Plant Worker," Pittsburgh (1946) and "Ferry Commuters," Staten Island, N.Y. (1946).
Following this assignment, Parks decided to move to New York City, where he resides today, to secure a magazine job.
Though he did encounter racial prejudice in the elite Manhattan magazine community at the start of his job search, acclaimed photographer Edward Steichen took an interest in his work, and Parks soon began shooting for such magazines as Glamour and Vogue. These assignments soon parlayed into a staff position at Life magazine in 1948, where he became the magazine's first black photographer. His first assignments: document Harlem's growing gang warfare and then cover the latest fashions in New York and Paris.
"Suddenly for me, two extremely diverse worlds were about to converge--one of crime, the other of high fashion," Parks recalled in his autobiography.
Parks remained on staff at Life until 1972, spending several years abroad as a European correspondent and shooting hundreds of photographs, with assignments ranging from hot-button cultural issues to Holly wood and fashion. His photographs included photo essays on the Black Panthers and the death of Malcom X, as well as romantic shots of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rosellini.
Ever the Renaissance man, Parks interests didn't end with photography. He is also known as an impressive author. He's written photography instruction manuals, as well as best-selling fictional account of his life in Fort Scott, entitled "The Learning Tree." Parks also has written three autobiographies chronicling different eras in his life: "A Choice of Weapons," "To Smile in Autumn," and "A Memoir and Voices in the Mirror." In addition, he has published several books of essays, poems and photographs.
But photography and writing weren't enough for the multitalented Parks. He also boasts an impressive film resume and a host of musical compositions.
His film career kicked off in the early 1960s when he made a feature film based on "The Learning Tree." His other films included "Shaft," "Leadbelly" "Solomon Northup's Odyssey," "Flavio: Diary of a Harlem Family," "Shaft's Big Score," "The Super Cops" and "Moments Without Proper Names."
Musically, Parks has composed tunes ranging from classical symphonics to blues to popular music. And "Martin," a ballet he wrote in 1989 about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., has been performed around the world.
Additionally, Parks is a fixture in many of the museums that once inspired him to become a photographer. His most recent exhibition tour, "Half Past Autumn," has stopped at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul, Minn.; the Museum of the City of New York; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta; The California African-American Museum in Los Angeles; The Cincinnati Art Museum; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.; and the Chicago Historical Society.
Most recently, Parks announced a collaboration with S2 Art Group. The artist is working with S2's atelier in Las Vegas to create limited-edition renderings of several of his famed photographs. The images have been created using a Photolitho Fusion Process, a unique printing technique that combines lithographic tradition with photographic technology. Thus far, the company has released the first four of 20 images that will be available in editions of 90 with 10 APs. The first four works include "Falling Petals," "The Road," "Glimpses" and "Love Petals." Each image also is available framed with hand-crafted Italian Volcanic Silver Leaf moulding.
This latest effort by Parks is yet another extension of his lifelong quest for beauty and truth. And as his career continues to flourish and grow, it becomes clear that his life is not just a learning tree. It is a living tree of talent and inspiration that has given him lessons that are beyond compare.
"My experience--though I would never wish it upon anyone else--has helped make me whatever I am and still hope to be," Parks wrote in his autobiography, "A Choice of Weapons." Parks continues, "I have come to understand that hunger, hatred and love are the same wherever you find them, and it is that understanding that now helps me escape the past that once imprisoned me."