Fighter with a Camera: An Interview with Gordon Parks
By Janis Bultman
Published in Darkroom Photography, March 1985 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
“Who’s going to be the most famous person in the room?” someone asked the mind reader who had been hired to entertain at the Rotary Club luncheon. “Gentlemen,” he said, “there is a boy at the back of this room in a white uniform. He will be more widely known than anybody else here.”
It was spring 1932. The mind reader was talking about a twenty-year-old busboy. His name was Gordon Parks.
Parks had a long way to go to live up to the mind reader’s prediction, but live up to it he did. Born the son of a sharecropper in rural Kansas in 1912, the youngest of fifteen children, he spent his early years fighting hunger, poverty, and prejudice. From the age of sixteen, he was on his own, and after moving to St. Paul, he worked variously as a piano player, busboy, railway porter, and semi-professional basketball player. Then he bought a camera.
In the second of three memoirs, A Choice of Weapons, Parks writes that one of the lessons of his childhood was that love, self-respect, and hard work are better ways to fight the world than hatred. These were the weapons he chose in his battle against poverty and injustice, and photography was another one.
Married and with a growing family, Parks moved to Chicago in his late twenties. While earning a living with fashion photography, he roamed Chicago’s South Side, taking pictures he hoped would “strike at the heart of poverty.” These photographs won him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, and he promptly joined the Farm Security Administration photographers, a group that included Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, in documenting the Depression.
Parks was the first black to join the FSA and later, in 1948, the staff of Life Magazine. A composer, poet, and filmmaker in addition to being a photographer and writer, Parks has authored a dozen books, including several novels, a book on photographic technique, and several volumes of poetry illustrated with his color photographs. He left Life in the late Sixties to work on the film version of his novel The Learning Tree, a fictionalized account of his Kansas youth. He wrote the screenplay and musical score and produced and directed it, thus becoming the first black to direct a major motion picture. Shaft and Leadbelly are among his other directing credits.
Parks is now 71. His East Side Manhattan apartment is proof of the rewards of hard work, even if the fact that he lives alone is proof of its hazards. In his spacious living room, floor to ceiling windows framed with greenery overlook the East River. Books are piled everywhere—on the antique writing table across the room, on the sofa next to us, on the cream-colored Oriental rug at our feet. Snapshots of his extended family (he married three times—four if you count a second marriage to his first wife) and friends crowd the top of a grand piano. Thirty-by-forties of his color photographs hang on the walls.
It’s Sunday, and after two weeks of daily phone calls, I’ve finally persuaded him to see me on his day of rest. He lists his reasons for being so evasive: He’s just finished a film for American Playhouse. PBS is doing a special on his life, and they’ve been running him all over the country. There’s a lecture to give here, a radio interview there. He’s just beginning negotiations for a new motion picture, and he’s working on a Broadway musical. His retrospective show is touring the country, and he attends the opening in each city. In and amidst all of that, he says, he hopes to get off to a nice, beautiful island. Someplace. Anyplace. Just to rest.
I begin by asking him why he chose to become a photographer.
GP: I was in search of some way to express my feelings about my surroundings. About the things I liked and disliked. A way to voice my resentment, my feelings about poverty, discrimination, and bigotry. I felt that photography was the most organized, practical, and genuine way to do it. And it was quick.
JB: What was your first camera?
GP: A Voigtlander Brilliant. I thought the name was really right on. I got it in a pawnshop, and it cost five dollars and fifty cents. It wasn’t much of a camera, but oh, what a name it had! The local Kodak store gave me a lot of encouragement after they developed my first roll. One of the clerks told me the results were excellent and asked how long I’d been shooting. I said it was my first roll. He told me that if I did two or three more rolls of film like that they’d give me a show. I couldn’t believe the film even turned out because I thought I’d ruined it when I fell into Puget Sound trying to shoot some seagulls. I didn’t even know how to unload the camera, so they unloaded it for me. Kodak did give me a show, about three or four months later—in the window of their downtown Minneapolis store.
JB: What were you doing to make a living then?
GP: I was running on the North Coast Limited between St. Paul, Chicago, and Seattle. At the same time, I was keeping my eyes open, learning to see things and mentally arranging visual compositions.
JB: Did you envision photography becoming a full-time professional career?
GP: I had to envision it as a career if I was going to pursue it because I just could not afford it as a hobby. I was too poor.
JB: How did you hook up with the Farm Security Administration?
GP: I’d seen the work of the FSA photographers—Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Jack Delano—and I liked what they were doing. I had received a Rosenwald Fellowship, and the Rosenwald staff persuaded Roy Stryker, who headed the photographic division at the FSA, to take me on.
JB: You wrote in your third memoir, To Smile in Autumn, that Roy Stryker altered the course of your life more than any other person. How did he do that?
GP: By making me aware of the importance of the camera as a weapon against intolerance, injustice, and poverty. By teaching me simplicity of approach. At that time, there was tremendous prejudice and discrimination in Washington. The very day I arrived, Stryker took my camera away and said, “Go out into the city and buy a coke. Eat in restaurants. Go to movies.” It was devastating. I found out a black person couldn’t eat in the restaurants downtown. I couldn’t go to the theaters. No one wanted to wait on me in the stores. I had foolishly thought Washington was the seat of democracy and that there I would find real freedom. Instead, I found mountains of prejudice. The worst in the country, possibly. Worse than in Mississippi or Georgia or Alabama.
I also learned very quickly that just to photograph a man who refused to sell me a ticket for the theater or who refused to feed me was not enough. Bigots look just like anyone else. There are very kind-looking bigots. I learned that I had to get at the roots of the evil by showing the things that caused it.
The very first picture I took there was the one of a black woman standing in front of an American flag with a mop in one hand and a broom in the other. It frightened the hell out of Striker. When he saw it he said, “My God. You’re going to get us all fired.” In retrospect, I must admit it’s not a subtle picture.
JB: While you were with the FSA, were you photographing mostly around Washington, D.C.?
GP: First, I was sent to New England—I suppose so I could get my feet wet. Roy figured I would have no problems there. And then I did quite a bit of stuff right there in Washington, D.C. I was very enthused because I started working in the style of the FSA group. There will never be another opportunity like that for photographers. It was fabulous. I thought it would be a wonderful chance for me to use my camera in the ghettos around the country, but strangely enough, Stryker kept me out of the ghettos.
JB: Did you ask him to send you there?
GP: No. I was very content to do what he wanted me to do. I realized that I was in a training period. Many magazines wanted to do stories on me because I was the first black photographer in the FSA. But he wouldn’t allow that because he thought I wasn’t ready for the experience. I had moments when I thought, “Is he holding me back?” But I needed publicity like I need a hole in the head. I really hadn’t learned anything yet. He was right. Stryker was a strange guy.
JB: How so?
GP: He was somewhat disliked by some people who felt he held too close a rein on them. Stryker liked to test your courage. He would let you get yourself right in the middle of something, and then he’d step away and let you work it out. You know, I was one of the few people he allowed to photograph him. He’d sort of hint that there was a photograph of him needed, and would I be interested in taking it? I never really knew why he selected me.
Basically, we all loved Roy. He was very supportive when I started to do more fashion photography. Some of the guys—documentary types—would say, “How can you do this?” Roy said to me, “Well, Jesus. There’s nothing wrong with photographing a beautiful woman in a beautiful dress. And furthermore, your ability to do that might very well keep you from starving one day. So pursue it. Don’t pay any attention to these guys.” And he was right again. It paid off.
JB: In A Choice of Weapons, you suggest that politics and racism played a part in dissolving the FSA.
GP: It was during the Great Depression in the Thirties, a time when Americans were starving and many families rode the highways in jalopies looking for work. Farmers were losing their land to the drought and dust storms. In revealing all this, the FSA project was in a sense an indictment of America. It could only have existed under a president like Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some Southern congressmen finally put enough pressure on him to convince him that money was being wasted for something that was purely an indictment of his constituency.
JB: Where did you go when the FSA dissolved?
GP: To the Office of War Information, where I became a war correspondent. I was assigned to cover the 332nd—the first all-black fighter pilot group—as it escorted bombers over their targets in Europe. I was pulled from the assignment at the port of embarkation because, again, there were certain Southern pressure groups that didn’t want black pilots getting publicity. When that fell through, I went back to New York and hooked up again with Stryker, who was by then at Standard Oil in New Jersey.
JB: Shortly thereafter, didn’t you experience one of Stryker’s tests of courage?
GP: That’s right. He encouraged me to buy a house, and then he laid me off for a few months without warning. So I wrote a book about photography. Franklin Watts published it.
JB: How did you start working for Life?
GP: I’d done a story for a magazine that had just gone out of business, so I went over to Life and showed the photos to the picture editor, Wilson Hicks. He called in John Dille, the human affairs editor, and Sally Kirkland, the fashion editor. Both of them egged Wilson to take me on, but Wilson was reluctant. He asked me what I wanted to do and off the top of my head, for no reason that I can remember, I said I wanted to do something on the Harlem gangs. He said, “No. We tried that last year and got sued because one of the boys in the gang turned out to be a preacher’s son.” In other words, the story was faked. I said, “I can do it. I’m not going to fake it.” So he offered me $200 to do the whole story. I thought that was insane. I’m sure he did too. He thought it would discourage me. But John Dille kept encouraging me to take it, so I did. He got me outside, and he said, “You know, you’re on an unlimited expense account.” That catapulted me immediately to the highest paid photographer on Life’s staff.
JB: How did you get the story?
GP: I went to see a detective friend up in Harlem. He told me that no gang leader with any sense would even think about letting me hang out with him for three months. Well, in walked Red Jackson. He gave the desk sergeant a good cursing out. I wondered why this sixteen-year-old kid wasn’t getting his head bashed in. The detective told me it was because he was one of the toughest kids in Harlem. He ran a gang, and if I could get with him, my problems would be solved.
So I asked Red about it. I told him I was a Life photographer. He wanted to know what Life was. I asked him if I could hang out with him and photograph him. No, of course not. I said, well, could I drive you home? Nope. But after he saw my beautiful Buick sitting outside the precinct house, he changed his mind. On the way home, he sensed the luxury of having a chauffeur for a while, so he went to his gang and convinced them to let me photograph them.
A couple of the kids were killed while I was doing the story. It was a very important story to me. I realized how young men like Red, who have a certain talent for leadership but lack direction, could end up in prison or the electric chair. They just didn’t have a chance.
I saw Red recently, believe it or not. I was walking through the 42nd Street subway when this rather roly-poly man walks up to me. He says, “Hey there, Mr. Parks. Do you know me?” I said, “Red Jackson.” I asked him what he was doing. “I’m hustling.” He was dressed very well, his shoes shined, looking kind of slick. I said, “Got any kids?” “Oh yeah, I got three kids” And I said, “Well, are you married?” He said, “No, I never got married. I had my kids by three different women. I never fell for that marriage stuff. But I take care of my kids. They all go to school. They’re all good kids and I like ‘em.” So I said, “Red, I’d like to see you sometime.” He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’d like to talk to you.” I never heard from him, but I’m sure I’ll run into him once again—hustling somewhere.
JB: Right after you did that story, didn’t Life send you to Paris?
GP: Yeah, with Sally Kirkland, to do the French collections.
JB: This was a very different world from the one you’d been brought up in. Did it seem unreal to you?
GP: It was unreal. Here I was going to Paris first class on the Queen Mary and dressing for dinner every night. In Paris, I was photographing models who were very famous. I was living at the Hotel Crillon on the Place de la Concorde, being chauffeured in limousines going to the houses of Dior, Balenciaga, Balmain, Givenchy. I had a hell of a good time. I learned a lot, and I tried not to let it overwhelm me.
JB: During that first trip to Paris, Life asked you to join its staff.
GP: Yes, and before long I was assigned to the Paris bureau, which was a plum because usually you had to work on staff six, seven, eight years to even be considered for it. Why they sent me immediately, I don’t know. I’m inclined to feel that they reasoned that with my fashion experience I could cover the collections and with my documentary background I could cover the communist riots that were happening all over Europe then. I was black. Perhaps they thought I would do better in Paris than I would in America. I stayed there about two years.
JB: When you did photo essays for Life, like those on impoverished families, how much time did you spend with your subjects before you started photographing?
GP: Just enough time to get them to feel that I was a friend and wasn’t there to exploit them—that I wanted to expose their plight through photography. Occasionally, I felt like I was playing God. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t.
The Flavio story turned out well. That was a documentary of a Brazilian child who was dying from a respiratory disease. I eventually brought him to the U.S., and he was cured at the Asthma Clinic in Denver. He owns his own home now, and he’s doing very well. The Fontanelle story? Disaster. Absolute disaster. I wanted to show a typically poor Harlem family. After the story came out, readers sent in contributions, and Life got them a house out on Long Island. It burned down. The father and one son died in the fire. One of the daughters died three years later. Three of the boys are in jail on dope charges. Mrs. Fontenelle is back in Harlem. I went up to see her on Christmas Eve, to take her some money, and sat with her for about two hours, feeling that I was a part of her misfortune.
JB: Does she blame you?
GP: No, she feels that I did what I could. Which I did. It’s nobody’s fault the old man came home drunk and went to sleep on the couch with a lighted cigarette. It didn’t matter if it was Harlem or Long Island. The key to the whole unfortunate episode was a bottle of whiskey and a cigarette.
JB: Do you often find yourself getting close to the people you photograph?
GP: Oh yes. Very close. Too close. I get concerned with the kids and what they’re doing. How they progress. I keep in touch as much as I can.
JB: Did you get to know Malcolm X as a consequence of photographing him?
GP: Yes. We were very close friends by the end of his life. I’m his daughter’s godfather. Malcolm was very important to me. I learned a lot from him, and he claims he learned some things from me. One night, we were on a plane coming in from Chicago during the heat of the civil rights battle. He was sleepy. He laid his head on my shoulder and said, “Well, maybe A Choice of Weapons is the way. Maybe your book is what it’s all about.” Then he went to sleep.
JB: That must have been a very loaded time for you emotionally—covering the Civil Rights Movement. Was that a test of your objectivity?
GP: I had to remain objective. I couldn’t hoodwink a big organization like Life with all its checks and double-checks, and I didn’t want to. I wanted to be an honest reporter. I couldn’t hoodwink Malcolm or Cleaver or any of those guys. They were all rather brilliant young men. I did, however, have to lay the law down. I said, “I don’t want to see anything that you don’t want me to report.” I had to protect myself at Life by writing my own stories and checking them out. Checking the checker out too. He could call a simple protest meeting a mob and I could be in trouble. I had to walk a tight line, knowing that I could always back up any situation through honest reporting. “This is what you did. This is what I wrote. I’m not telling it out of school.”
JB: Even so, I imagine you caught a lot of criticism from certain segments of the black community—much as Milton Coleman did recently for reporting Jesse Jackson’s remark about “hymies.”
GP: That’s true. There was a time when I was afraid for my life because of a story I wrote on Malcolm X’s death. But if you call yourself a reporter, you have to act like a reporter. Actually, Jackson shouldn’t have said what he said and he can only blame himself—and he does. A leader must rise above that sort of thing and really accept all people with a true sense of brotherhood. That’s possibly the most important thing I’ve learned during my lifetime.