NEAL CONAN, host:
Pioneering photographer Gordon Parks died yesterday at the age of 93. He leaves a legacy of remarkable achievements and any number of firsts.
He was the first black staff photographer at Life Magazine. He was the first African-American to direct a major studio film, The Learning Tree. He also directed the movie Shaft, and established himself as a novelist, memoirist, poet, and composer.
Deb Willis is an historian of African-American photography. She's a professor of photography and imaging at the Tisch School of Arts at New York University and the author of Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present.
Deb Willis is also a photographer and joins us now to remember Gordon Parks.
Thanks so much for being with us today.
Professor DEB WILLIS (Photography and imaging, Tisch School of Arts at New York University): Thank you.
CONAN: Tell us a little bit more about how Gordon Parks started his career.
Professor WILLIS: He started his career as a young man living in St. Paul, in Minnesota. He started out by asking one of the storeowners if it was okay to photograph models. The storeowner was looking for a photographer to photograph a fashion show. He was tapped to do it, and he lost all of the film except for one image on the film. But that one image secured the position for him to photograph other images.
He continued and moved to Chicago and photographed there. Life in Chicago, as well as when he won a Rosenwald and moved to Washington, D.C. to photograph for the Foreign Security Administration. And that's when his career became popular and a number of people began to know his work and he was acknowledged then as a serious photographer.
CONAN: Is there something about his work, I mean, you mentioned that one image got him the job, is there something about his work that would make a Gordon Parks photograph just stand out from, instantly identifiable as his?
Professor WILLIS: I think that there's an intimacy and there's a humane aspect, a sense of humanity when we look at his photographs. I think that he clearly tells a story, with one photograph. If he was photographing, the one image that we know that most people are familiar with is a photograph of Ella Watson, the charwoman at the, working in the office building, the government office building, where the, she's standing in front of the flag with the broom and the mop.
And so its kind of a metaphorical image where he's using the symbols of work and the government and women and he's telling a story about struggle.
CONAN: I think that image, among others, is on our website. If you've never seen it, go to npr.org.
But how did he then progress, you know, to make the transition from being a still photographer to being a movie director?
Professor WILLIS: I think that because he was able to tell stories visually, I think he has a sense of reflection, and he reflected on the stories. His first movie was based on his own life. Looking at his life as a young boy in Kansas, he decided to tell that story, and he visually kind of, with a kind of a dream quality to the story that he was able to present. And the dream-like quality--most of us are encouraged to dream. And I think he was encouraged to dram as a young man, and so that continued with his photographs.
CONAN: and he did not confine his dreams to visual images.
Professor WILLIS: No, he actually, he made music in terms of composing music on the piano. And he also, in terms of his poetry. His poetry is just fascinating, in terms of the conversations that he had with language, with the words that he created about life.
CONAN: A lot of times, pioneers are of course, remembered for pioneering, but afterwards, in retrospect, the quality of their work fades because of, well, other people come along and they're also pretty good. Gordon Parks, do you think he's going to be remembered as both?
Professor WILLIS: I think he'll be remembered for both.
Living for 93 years, I think he's contributed in every aspect of the arts, and he's influenced a number of photographers and a number of filmmakers. So in terms of--and he's fostered relationships with younger people around the world. And I think that that's something that will always be instilled in young people as well as older people like myself.
CONAN: We just have a few seconds left, but is there an example you could give us of how he influenced your work, for example?
Professor WILLIS: Well, he influenced by work as, I'm a photographer and I'm interested in telling stories through family images, and, an understanding beauty within the normalcy of life, and its something that he encouraged me to photograph and also to appreciate beauty within making images. And it's something that I explored not only through the aspect of photographing my family or photographing families around the world, but also understanding that intimacy.
CONAN: Deb Willis, thanks very much, and condolences on the loss.
Professor WILLIS: Thank you.
CONAN: Deb Willis, a professor of photograph and imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University; also the author of Reflections in Black.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
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