A Gift of Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks, circa 1980s; Photo by Morris Lane
Gordon Parks, circa 1980s; Photo by Morris Lane

Last month, I received a five-volume boxed set of the collected works of Gordon Parks. It came out of the blue—as a gift from the publisher, Gerhard Steidl, and Dr. Thomas Schwarz, the president of SUNY/Purchase, which is where the Gordon Parks Foundation is housed.

It is a magnificent collection—one that reflects the arc of an artistic career that almost defies description. Gordon Parks was a photographer, musician, author, poet, and filmmaker—a pioneering story-teller with an unerring eye, acute intellect, and empathetic heart. He was the first African-American photographer to work at Life and Vogue magazines; the first African-American to work for the Office of War Information during WWII and the Farm Security Administration; and in bringing his novel The Learning Tree to the screen, the first to write, direct, and produce a film for a major motion picture company. He was a Renaissance man.

At Life magazine, where he worked for 20 years, one might say he covered the waterfront: fashion, crime, entertainers, society, the civil rights movement, Benedictine monks, and Harlem gangs. Most notable, perhaps, were his heart-rending photo essays on the hidden worlds of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, as the senior curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art points out in these volumes. “His stories transported readers not only to other places and to the diversity of their fellow humanity, but to a better sense of themselves.”

Ten years ago, FIT recognized Gordon Parks with an honorary degree from SUNY at our 2004 commencement ceremony. Already 92 years old, he was still actively involved in his many pursuits—gracious, lively, and delightful. At a luncheon following the ceremony (held in the employee dining room in Dubinsky), we surprised him with a performance by his old friend, the renowned jazz artist Grady Tate, playing “Don’t Misunderstand”—with words and music by Gordon Parks himself. It was a real treat for everyone present.

These five volumes offer a survey of his entire 70 year career, including work from years long before and years long after his tenure at Life. Some are iconic and are among the most memorable visual symbols of moments in time, of individuals. They range from explorations of New York’s old Fulton fish market to South American hovels to landscapes and abstractions. In color or black and white, these photographs have universal reach. The volumes also contain enlightening essays from colleagues at Life, art historians and other scholars—as well as from Parks himself.

I am ever grateful to Dr. Schwarz and the publisher for this gift. The books will reside in the Gladys Marcus Library where I hope they will provide insight and pleasure to all who reach for them.

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