Photographer and director Gordon Parks captured the Black experience
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. A new documentary called "A Choice Of Weapon: Inspired By Gordon Parks," is about the great photographer who chronicled the Black experience for Life magazine. Later, he went on to become the first Black director in Hollywood to work for a major studio. We're going to listen to our interview with Gordon Parks. He directed "Shaft," the first Hollywood Studio black action film, which went on to inspire a wave of what became known as Black exploitation films. Before "Shaft," He directed "The Learning Tree," an adaptation of his autobiographical novel about growing up in Kansas. Parks taught himself how to take photographs and became a staff photographer at Life magazine. He worked there for 20 years, documenting everything from fashion shows to gang wars in Harlem. Gordon Parks died in 2006. He spoke with Terry Gross in 1990, when he had published his memoir called "Voices In The Mirror."
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TERRY GROSS: Let's go back to your early years. You left home when you were about 15 years old. Why did you set off on your own at such a young age?
GORDON PARKS: I was sent off to Minnesota. My mother requested that they take me to Minnesota after she died. As - and my sister Peggy (ph) and her husband, David Grissom, were living in Minnesota. And I was sent to live with them. My brother-in-law took a dislike to me at first sight. And I lasted there for a few months. But on one cold Christmas Eve, I think it was, he tossed me out of the house - about 35 degrees below zero. And I had to readjust my way of life, my way of thinking. Less than - an hour or so after my - he tossed my bags out in the snow. And there I was, you know?
GROSS: What were some of the first ways that you earned a living when you were out on your own?
PARKS: Well, I played piano at a whorehouse. I played - later played professional basketball. I played with an orchestra. I did a lot of things. I was a janitor, the young janitor at a flophouse in Chicago. I did a lot of things to survive.
GROSS: And it was photography that got you out of that.
PARKS: More or less. I had seen the bombing of the U.S. gunship, was called the Panay. It was bombed by Japanese planes. And the cameraman who took the picture stayed right by his post until the gun boat sank. And I was watching a newsreel of that in Chicago. And after it was shown, the intercom announced that Norman Alley, the cameraman who shot those wonderful pictures, is here. He jumped out on the stage in a white suit. And I thought that was so glamorous and so wonderful. And that helped me to become a cameraman, I suppose, later myself a little bit.
But I had seen the pictures of the wonderful documentary photographers at the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C. - Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans. What I saw there let me know that I could use the camera, as well, that as the way - they had used it against poverty, that I could use it, too, against poverty and discrimination and the intolerance I had suffered as a Black man in America.
GROSS: When you started to work professionally, did you find that a lot of magazines were reluctant to hire a Black photographer?
PARKS: No, I did not. I did not find that experience. I did find one experience. I went to Harper's Bazaar. And I had spoke to Alexey Brodovitch, who was the art director there at that time. And he told me very frankly after seeing my pictures that he liked them very much, but that it was a Hearst organization, and that they had a rule that they could not hire negroes. And I said, thank you, picked up my pictures and left.
And then I was sent over to Vogue by Edward Steichen, who was a very famous photographer. And I met Alexander Liberman, the art director. And Liberman looked at my pictures and then looked at me. And I felt, well, here comes another refusal. And he said, you know, I don't know what's going to happen, but we're damn well going to try. After that, I worked for about five years for Vogue and Glamour. And after that, I went to Life later and eventually landed on the staff there.
GROSS: One of the photographic series that you did for Life that first made a really big impression on the public and on your editors there was your series of photos of a Harlem gang. It was hard for you to convince them to let you shoot photographs of them. What kinds of photographs did you end up taking? What did you want to show Americans about this gang?
PARKS: Well, I wanted to show the horrors of gang war. And these young - at that time, these young gang leaders were knocking each other off in Harlem and shooting each other and killing one another and all that sort of thing. And I felt that, after I got involved in it and - that if I could show pictures that would speak of despair amongst these young men and question them as to their reasons for becoming gang leaders in the first place, it would help them to escape the evil of it. And I talked to Red Jackson, who was this young gang leader about it. And at first, he pooh-poohed the idea. But then he began to agree with me. There was a fight, big street fight, where one boy was getting cut in the stomach. I shot that with infrared flash.
GROSS: How did you feel about taking that photograph of watching somebody get stabbed in the stomach?
PARKS: You don't feel good about it at all. You don't - there's nothing you can do about it at the moment. That's - if you - it's no - you're not going to run up there and grab the knife and say, hey, don't do that. I knew that if there were was a war, a gang war, that somebody would probably lose their life. That's the humane part of me that said, I hope it doesn't happen. Yet on the other side, you know that Life Magazine is sitting up there waiting for you to bring back some action pictures. So you're torn. And you know that there's nothing that you can do about it one way or the other at that particular moment. So you photograph what you see before you.
GROSS: In your memoir, you write that you had four friends who died brutally before they were 21 and that you consider yourself lucky that you didn't end up killing someone yourself. And I wasn't sure whether you meant you were lucky sociologically that you didn't end up killing someone or if you were referring to your own temperament.
PARKS: In Kansas in those days. There was always racial strife. You were always set upon because you were Black by gangs of whites or something of that sort if you were caught in the wrong neighborhood. And you had to fight your way out of it. Well, you might very well not have thought that you could make it and turn around and knife somebody to death. Well, you know where the finger of justice was going to point. It was going to point at you.
When I look back and think of the deaths that I experienced there - the two women I saw, again, cutting one another to death in front of a pool hall, things like that. And the men didn't step in to stop it. I was just a young kid. I saw all this. I could have been scarred for life, you know? And - but I didn't let it get to me for some reason or another. But I was terribly frightened of death until I was almost a man.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
PARKS: I want to thank you very much.
BIANCULLI: Gordon Parks speaking with Terry Gross in 1990. The documentary "A Choice Of Weapons: Inspired By Gordon Parks" is now available on HBO Max. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "The Power Of The Dog," the new Gothic Western by director Jane Campion. This is FRESH AIR.
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