STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Gordon Parks died yesterday at the age of 93, and here is just one of his accomplishments: he was one of the most acclaimed photographers of the 20th century, the first African-American whose photography gained widespread acceptance in major magazines.
NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.
NEDA ULABY reporting:
Gordon Parks was the 15th child born to a poor family. Parks dropped out of high school, worked on a railroad dining car, and played piano in a brothel. Parks told NPR he bought his first camera for 7 and a half dollars in Seattle.
Mr. GORDON PARKS (Filmmaker, Photographer): That same afternoon, I started shooting what I saw was moving around. That was seagulls. And I accidentally fell into Puget Sound, and they had to get the firemen to pull me out. Otherwise, I'd have drowned.
ULABY: From the beginning, Parks was fearless. In a segregated America, he sauntered into people's businesses and offered to take pictures. That's how he got to know Wilson Hicks, picture editor of the prestigious Life Magazine in the late 1940s.
Mr. PARKS: So, I just took a chance, walked in. And he looked and asked me how I got in. I said I just walked in. And he said, well, you can just walk the hell out.
ULABY: But Parks offered to show Hicks some pictures first.
Mr. PARKS: He looked at one picture, and he looked at another, and he kept on looking. And out of that session, he decided to hire me to do fashions, and also to do my first big story for Life, which was the Harlem Gang story.
ULABY: Parks later turned his compassionate lens on Brazilian street kids, aristocrats, civil rights leaders, and many more. Lester Sloan is a photographer and Parks' friend. He says Parks always conveyed intimacy, as in his dual portrait of jazz legends Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
Mr. LESTER SLOAN (Photographer): You would have thought you were watching two lovers work together. His pictures are just elegant. And we haven't even touched upon his music, or his poetry, or his prose.
ULABY: No, we haven't.
(Soundbite of music)
ULABY: Gordon Parks composed this music, and he authored novels, wrote poems, scored concertos, and directed films. Parks directed a 1970s cultural milestone: a film called "Shaft." Isaac Hayes wrote booming theme song, and the rest of the score as well.
Mr. ISAAC HAYES (Singer, Songwriter): I knew Gordon liked the smooth music, and that's when I came up with Ellie's Love Theme. And the montage of shots through Harlem, I had to make it soulful. It was a black neighborhood. I knew Gordon wanted that.
ULABY: Gordon Parks also directed a markedly different movie based on a coming of age novel he wrote in 1963.
(Soundbite of "The Learning Tree")
Unidentified Man: (In film clip) Are we going to live here all our lives?
Unidentified Woman: (In film clip) Don't you like it here, son?
ULABY: The Learning Tree takes place in a small, racially-divided Kansas town, where a young man learns his mother's lessons can apply to the whole world.
(Soundbite of "The Learning Tree")
Unidentified Woman: (In film clip) Sort of like fruit on a tree: some good, some bad. Understand? No matter if you go or stay, think of Cherokee Flats like that till the day you die. Let it be your Learning Tree.
ULABY: Parks' own Cherokee Flats was called Fort Scott. And although he became a man of the world, he asked to be buried there.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Now, if you're not familiar with Gordon Parks' photography, you need to go to npr.org, look at the picture of the woman in front of the American flag. I'm looking at it now. It's at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.