Gordon Parks: A Voice in the Mirror
“I have never gloried at being the first black photographer to enter those closed doors at Life magazine, Vogue or any of the other places. I like to feel they were opened for my race as well as me. I did realize that I making fresh tracks, but I never carried the responsibility around on my back like a sack of stones. I simply did my best without asking favors because I was black. Time and time again those tracks have been filled, and this is reason to rejoice.”
Gordon Parks (Photo by Steven A. Heller)
These words were written by Gordon Parks (1912–2006) in the third of his four autobiographies, Voices in the Mirror, published in 1990. The convictions they embody were manifest in every facet of a remarkable life in which Parks made big tracks in numerous creative arenas. He was the first African-American to join the staffs of Life and Vogue magazines, and the first to direct a major Hollywood film. But breaking racial barriers was only part of his story. As a child growing up in rural Kansas, he suffered extreme poverty and racism without succumbing to bitterness or prejudice. On his own at 15, he played piano in a Minnesota brothel, cleaned up in a Chicago flophouse, worked as a railway porter and played semi-pro baseball. He discovered photography at 25, and demonstrated a quick and lasting affinity with the medium. Sensitive photos of Chicago’s rugged South Side earned him the first Julius Rosenwald Fellowship and work as a Farm Security Administration photographer alongside Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Parks went to work for Life in 1949, and for the next two decades produced eloquent and hard-hitting photo essays on poverty, racial segregation, and civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. He also excelled at sports, fashion and portrait photography. His restless creative spirit eventually led him to Hollywood, where he made history with the groundbreaking films The Learning Tree (1969), Shaft (1971) and Leadbelly (1976). When I interviewed Parks in 1991 for Camera & Darkroom magazine, he had just finished Voices in the Mirror and was working on a new novel and screenplay, finishing a book of poetry, planning another photo book, giving lectures, and spreading good vibes wherever he went. Although our conversation took place almost two decades ago, Parks' plea for tolerance and understanding between people of all ages, races and walks of life remains as relevant as ever.
Red Jackson, Harlem Gang Leader
You’re busier than most men half your age. How do you manage to keep so many irons in the fire?
I’m using energy left over from my youth [laughs]. The projects give you energy. I get it from my work, from my typewriter when I sit down to work on my novel or screenplay or poetry. Actually, I don’t feel too well when I’m not working, maybe due to a fear of depression from inactivity. It’s actually easier for me now to keep up the pace. When I experiment, I do so with more confidence, and I work with more confidence.
Why did you decide to write another autobiography, and are you satisfied that this is the definitive version?
I don’t suppose anything’s ever done to your complete satisfaction, but it’s getting fabulous reviews all over the country, so I suppose it’s satisfying to some. I wrote it because people I met through my lectures felt there were a lot of unanswered questions about my successes and failures, things not addressed in my previous books, so I decided to write another.
What’s the most important message in Voices in the Mirror?
One must take a look in the mirror at himself, at those around him and at his past and see what they meant to him. In this particular book, the message that comes through to me is that people from all walks of life, all colors and races and religions, helped me get to wherever I got to, and that I must always look at what they are, not the color of their skin.
You’ve had significant success in not just one, but several artistic mediums. Do you feel there are still worlds for you to conquer?
Well, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything. I think of myself as just working very hard to survive, and that’s what it’s all about. I never thought about being a success. I always thought of survival. If survival turned into success, well, all the better. What I strive to do is come as close to perfection as I possibly can in whatever I do. I want to compose music better, I want to photograph better, I want to write better, make better poetry, paint better—do all those things better.
What are some of the projects you’re currently working on?
Right now I’m busy composing a lot of music as well as writing a screenplay and novel about the English painter J.M.W. Turner. After I finish the screenplay, I hope to be able to film it in England. But first I want to finish the novel, which I’ve been working on for about four years. It’s very difficult, because here I am, a Kansas kid from the prairies trying to put myself into the world of a young English painter in London in the 18th century! I’ve also got a book of new poems coming out that will deal in part with the recent Middle East war, and there are plans for a new photo book.
What type of photographic subjects interest you today?
I only do very special things. I don’t photograph that much unless something really excites me. I’ve been doing some experimental color work with fruits and vegetables, and was recently commissioned to photograph the prairies of Kansas. But it’s very difficult for me now to find inspirational photo essays for magazines the way they exist today. They don’t have the same depth that they had when I worked for Life magazine. I think it must be very difficult now for young photographers starting out, since they don’t have the spiritual or financial backing that we had in the old days.
What do you think of Life magazine today?
Well, it’s good for what it is, and it has some exciting color and unusual photographs, but what I’m saying is that when Henry Luce [Life’s original publisher] was alive, the photographer was sent out on a story and allowed to work on that story until he was finished, no matter if it took ten days, ten weeks or a year, because Luce believed in photography, and in giving the photographer what he needed to get a good story. If you needed an airplane, you got an airplane. If you needed a ship, you got a ship. With that kind of backing, you were not rushed and were able to give your subject matter full respect.
For instance, when I approached a sensitive story like Flavio or the Fontenelle family [two of Parks' photo essays on poverty in Brazil and New York, respectively], I didn’t even take my camera out for a week, because I wanted the people to get to know me and gain some respect and knowledge of what I was trying to do. And after doing a story on a poverty-stricken family, I could never just forget them after the story was published. I always felt like a part of that family and somehow or other kept in contact with them long after the assignment.
Flavio Da Silva
You have been one of the few photographers to actually make a difference in your subjects’ lives. For instance, your 1961 story on the Brazilian boy Flavio and his family, who lived in a notorious Rio de Janeiro slum, generated a tremendous response in letters and money from Life’s readers. Do you feel the same depth of response is possible today considering how images people are continually exposed?
I doubt it. With the Flavio story almost $30,000 came in one week from the magazine’s readers and thousands of letters asking about him. I doubt seriously that you can get that kind of response today. There seems to be a blanket of callousness over the universe. You see a lot of news on TV, day and day out, with images of children starving and being abused in different parts of the world, so people become sort of calloused, and would probably not react as fully as they did back in those years. Yet I still feel photography can be a useful tool for change. I think it can help and can point up issues and things that will make people question what’s going on.
Which of your colleagues at Life made the biggest impression on you?
I was good friends with and admired Carl Mydans, Alfred Eisenstadt, Eugene Smith and David Douglas Duncan, among others. I also knew Robert Capa very well. He was very talented and courageous. I remember when I was a young man working as a porter on a train Capa was traveling on. When he got off the train, I handed him his bag and told him I would be out to join him at Life one day. He gave me a silver dollar and said, “Okay, I’ll leave a locker for you.” Years later Robert and I were frolicking half-drunk down the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and I turned to him and said, “Thanks for saving me that locker.” He replied, “What locker? What the hell are you talking about? You mean that was you?”
Mother and Child, Harlem
What are the most important qualifications a young photojournalist needs today?
First, you have to believe in yourself. And you have to find stories in which you can assert yourself and say something about the world around you. If you don’t have anything to say, your photographs are not going to say much. You should also read a lot, be able to do research, and study all art forms—not just photography—so you become thoroughly aware of what exists around you. Otherwise you’re just out there aimlessly shooting pictures. You also have to create situations for yourself. Look around and generate ideas. Sometimes magazine editors don’t tell you what to do, but sit back and wait for you to bring them ideas.
When you worked for Life, how much control did the editors exercise over your work?
There was always a control; there had to be some sort. We would send our stuff in from Europe or wherever we were traveling, the lab would make the contact prints, the editors would select the best pictures and hand them over to a layout man who understood the story. You could insist upon certain shots; sometimes you won, sometimes you lost. But overall, I was very pleased about the way Life handled me and my photographs. They did not shuttle me off onto just black stories, and I didn’t go anywhere as a black reporter or writer. I went as a reporter from Life magazine, period. That attitude was very helpful to the magazine and myself.
You often landed tough, gritty assignments. Did you seek out these types of stories?
Well, I suggested some of them, and the editors suggested some, perhaps because of the success I’d had with my story on gangs in Harlem and the crime stories I’d done. Since I was a person who had suffered many of the same things I encountered on those stories, the editors felt I would be more adept at getting good coverage. I had been trained in the worlds of poverty and crime and so forth. I understood it because I’d been through it and knew where to look for it.
Did you attempt to imbue such stories with a political subtext?
Not really. I always thought in terms of humanity. If my work had a political aspect, it came from others’ reactions to it. All I tried to do was to open people’s eyes to the worlds of the underprivileged. I worked out of my concern for individuals. When you’re doing the work, you are thinking of the individual, not the political impact that work may subsequently have.
You wrote articles for Life as well as took photographs. Was your writing edited much?
Oh, yes. Sometimes for the good, sometimes not. I had to watch it, especially when I was covering the black militants back in the 1960s: people like Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale. When I first started doing those stories, Life was not sure that I would be as objective as they would like, because I was black and I had a common interest with the black revolution. And I’m sure that the black militants, realizing that I worked for a big, conservative white magazine, were not sure that I would report in their favor. So I had to keep a close eye on the editors so they wouldn’t change things or use a word I didn’t want to use. In the end, both sides greeted me with understanding.
You spent a lot of time with and became close to Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver. Did their philosophies influence your thinking in any way?
I went in with my own attitude. I’d seen enough and heard enough to know that I had to follow my own course, not theirs. Eldridge Cleaver asked me to be the Panthers’ official public relations person when I was with him in Algiers, but I refused. One of the Panthers asked me if I would still write A Choice of Weapons the same as I had written it years before. When I said yes, he replied, “You mean you feel the same, even with all these white honkies following us around here with machine guns?” [The Panthers were under police observation at the time.] I said to him, “You have a 45mm automatic pistol on your lap, and I have a 35mm camera on my lap, and my weapon is just as powerful as yours.”
Assess the degree of progress in social gains since the civil rights protests of the 1960s.
You can’t deny that there’s been a lot of progress. Blacks and other minorities are in very responsible positions. There are a lot of young people being educated now and going on to achieve positions in politics and the corporate world that wouldn’t have been able to do so back then. Yet there’s still a great underclass developing. With all the progress, it still isn’t enough. It’s not swift enough.
Do you see any present-day Martin Luther Kings or Malcolm Xs?
I don’t know. I’ve noticed certain young leaders and I hail them when they do something particularly good. However, most of our strongest leaders have been destroyed. King, Malcolm, Medger Evers—all shot away, assassinated. There are some young people who seem to be on the move, and I think they will emerge as responsible leaders. We have more black mayors and politicians and so forth, and that’s encouraging, but I don’t see anyone rocking across the horizon. Some of them are trying, but they don’t seem to have the magic to stir the populace the way King or Malcolm did.
Do you still feel yourself to be part of the civil rights struggle, as well as effective voice for change?
I’ll always be a part of the struggle. How effective I’ve been and will be, history will say that. I will not attempt to say something like that. I like to think of myself as part of the struggle for all humanity. I think in terms of universality. And I think if I have achieved certain things a lot of people haven’t, it’s because I think that way. I’d like for a woman in Russia to understand my poems and photos and paintings as well as a woman in Harlem. I’ve been successful to the extent that I have not allowed the anger and the hatred that I could have had for certain people bottle me up and let me go to bed with stress every night. Instead, I used that anger in a forceful, creative way, rather than in a self-destructive way.
Ingrid Bergman, Stromboli
Where does society look for answers to the some of the evils that afflict it?
I’m afraid racism is always going to be with us. Unfortunately, we can’t rid ourselves of it. Poverty is always going to be around. Violence will always be here in some form or another. I think the answers lie with younger people and with education. Yet, you have to be optimistic about the future. There’s no sense in going on if you think that everything is going downhill, if you have no reason to connect with the world around you.
What would you most like to be remembered for?
I don’t particularly care about being remembered, but I do want my work to live on. I’d like my work to be remembered for its universality. I’ve written an Irish novel called Shannon, and am now writing this novel on Turner, and I’d like to make films of both. It’s best not to get stuck in that black world. Duke Ellington, one of my favorite composers and a good friend, advised me to listen to Ravel and Debussy and Beethoven and so on, because they would help me to broaden my musical horizons. And so I don’t just write black poetry or paint black pictures. I think blacks should find out as much as they can about their history and where they came from and so on, but not allow themselves to shoved into a corner just to do black things. If you put yourself in a corner, it’s nobody’s fault but your own.
Children with Doll
“I trust time. It has been my friend for a long while, and we have been through a lot together. Now I ask only that it lend enough of itself to say a proper goodbye; to thank it for giving me faith when others chose to doubt me; for refusing to let me hate those who chose to hate me. It taught me that triumph or failure can be hypocritical, and that both should be looked at with beseeching eyes.” — Voices in the Mirror
(All photographs by Gordon Parks. To learn more about this great American and artist, please visit http://gordonparkscenter.org, and http://www.gordonparksfoundation.org.)