Tribute to Photographer, Filmmaker Gordon Parks

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Ed Gordon remembers Gordon Parks, who died on Tuesday. Parks captured black America as a photographer for Life magazine and became Hollywood's first major black director with the "blacksploitation" hit Shaft. Parks was 93 years old.

ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. Before we get started on the roundtable today, a note of the passing of another American icon. Gordon Parks died on Tuesday at the age of 93. A man of many talents, Parks was an author, composer, musician, poet, and filmmaker. But he may be best known for his gritty photo essays for Life magazine, images that documented the lives of impoverished and disenfranchised people, not only in the United States, but around the world.

Parks was born in Ft. Scott, Kansas in 1912, the youngest of 15 children. His family was poor, but his parents, Sarah and Andrew Parks, instilled in him the values of hard work and racial pride. Although his mother died when he was a teenager, in an interview with NPR three years ago, he gave her the credit for his amazing success.

Mr. GORDON PARKS (Photographer, Life magazine): I remember my mother specifically telling me that she would not accept any excuses because I was black and that I failed this or failed that, or this was denied me or that was denied me because I was black. She felt, very rightly, that if a white boy can do it, I can do it, and she wanted to see me do it better.

GORDON: After his mother's passing, he moved in with an older sister in St. Paul, Minnesota, but after a fight with his brother-in-law, he was thrown out of the house. Parks would leave high school without completing his studies. He made ends meet with a string of odd jobs, including playing piano in a brothel.

He bought his first camera in a pawnshop in 1937, and that would set him on the road to becoming a world-renowned photographer. He initially made a name for himself as a fashion photographer. While shooting models, he would also document life in the city slums. It would be these pictures that would bring acclaim.

He soon moved from the nation's capital to New York. He became the first black man to work for both Glamour and Vogue, before finally settling at Life magazine in 1948. He stayed there for more than 20 years and shot some of the most poignant and evocative pictures of the time, from the civil rights movement to Harlem gangs.

He later set his sight on Hollywood, and in 1969 became the first African- American to produce and direct a picture for a major Hollywood studio, Warner Brothers. The movie, The Learning Tree, was based on his 1963 autobiographical novel of the same name.

In 1989, the film was chosen by the U.S. Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry for all time, one of only 25 films to be so honored. Parks went on to box office success in 1971 with Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree.

(Soundbite of song "Shaft")

Never one to rest on his laurels, Parks continued to push his creative boundaries by writing poetry, producing documentaries, and composing the music for a ballet based on the life of Martin Luther Jr. In 2003, Parks told NPR how he hoped to be remembered.

Mr. PARKS: I just want to be remembered for having been a decent human being who loved people regardless of who they were, and make this a better world, the universe that has put upon by God, and he expects for me to give something to it and not just to take something away from it.

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