Remembering Gordon Parks, Renowned Fashion Photographer & Photojournalist

Gordon Parks is the most important black photographer in the history of photojournalism. Long after the events that he photographed have been forgotten, his images will remain with us, testaments to the genius of his art, transcending time, place and subject matter.” — Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Center at Harvard University

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Born in 1912, Gordon Parks had much to overcome as a child: poverty, the death of his mother when he was just 14, racism, and learning to get by on his own after leaving home as a teenager. It is when he was 25 that he saw a copy of a magazine that changed his life forever. The magazine featured documentary photographs by famous photographers like Dorthea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Jack Delano, and Ben Shahn, and their work inspired him.

I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs… I knew at that point I had to have a camera,” Parks said.

Parks quickly purchased a camera of his own at a pawn shop in Seattle. Shortly after, he had honed his photographic skills and took an interest in fashion photography, as well as documenting the segregated lives of blacks living in communities such as Harlem; Mobile, Ala., and Chicago’s South Side. His work was so powerful that he got the attention of Life Magazine and Vogue.

Life hired him as a staff photographer and writer, making him the first African American photographer to be on staff. Parks also freelanced for Vogue. Some of his subjects included Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Langston Hughes, Gloria Vanderbilt, Ingrid Bergman, and Robert Rossellini. For many of Life Magazine’s viewers, Park’s photojournalistic work was an eye-opening portrayal of what life was like in many black communities in the 1950s and ’60s.

In addition to being an outstanding photographer, Parks was also a skilled writer, musician-composer, and filmmaker. After writing the autobiographical novel, “The Learning Tree,” he wrote a screenplay and adapted it for the big screen in 1969. Parks’ direction on “The Learning Tree” made him the first African American to direct a major Hollywood motion picture. His direction on the 1971 film, “Shaft,” was also a major Hollywood success.

So, let’s take a look at some of the excellent photographs that Gordon Parks has made over the years.

Portraiture:

Gordon Parks Photography

American Gothic,” 1942 (one of Parks’ most famous photographs)

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Malcolm X Addressing Black Muslim Rally in Chicago, 1963

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Muhammad Ali, Miami, Florida, 1966

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Langston Hughes, 1941

Photojournalism:

Gordon Parks Photography

At Segregated Water Fountain, Mobile, Alabama,” 1956

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Colored Entrance, Mobile, Alabama,” 1956

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Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Mobile, Alabama,” 1956

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Norman Jr. Reading in Bed,” New York, 1967

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The Fontenelle Family: Bessie with her children Kenneth, Richard, Norman Jr., and Ellen,” New York, 1967

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Emerging Man,” Harlem, 1952

Fashion Photography:

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Comtesse Alain de la Falaise, Paris, 1949

Gordon Parks Photography

Vogue

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Gloria Vanderbilt, 1952

Gordon Parks Photography

Ingrid Bergman, Stromboli, Italy, 1949

For further viewing, the New York Times Lens Blog has excellent galleries featuring more of Gordon Parks’ fashion photography and photojournalism.

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CASA Volunteer Jonas Akpassa Goes Above and Beyond in Advocating for a Child

Every week, Jonas travels an hour and twenty minutes—one way—to visit the boy he advocates for as a CASA. When speaking with Jonas last week, he mentioned that he had just made an extra trip to visit his CASA child, Michael, age 14, because he had gotten into a fight with another student at school. The distance is never a problem for Jonas—he has to do this work, he said. Even if that means showing up to Michael’s school more than once a week.

“He hurts. He’s 14; it’s not like he’s five or six and doesn’t understand,” said Jonas of Michael’s experiences.

Before Michael was sent to the youth shelter about eight months ago, he had regularly been a victim of corporal punishment. Michael’s father has not been involved in his life in the last five years, and he was living with his mother and her paramour. The couple used force with Michael. As Michael’s misbehavior increased, so did the violent punishments, and vice versa. Michael’s mother ultimately called the Division to take him away. She informed them that she was scared of her son for acting out violently toward her.

However, since arriving at the youth shelter, Michael has been participating in individual and group therapy and is already showing much improvement with his behavior. He is also enjoying school and receiving good grades.

When Jonas first met Michael at the youth shelter, he was very quiet. But Jonas did not mind.

“It’s ok. You sit over there; I’ll sit over here,” Jonas told him, not planning on leaving right away. When it was time to depart, Jonas told Michael that he would be seeing more of him.

By the second or third visit, Michael was surprised. “I didn’t expect you,” he said.

“Well, you’re going to start getting used to it because you’re going to see me all the time,” Jonas said. Michael started laughing, and he began talking about sports and asked about Jonas’ life.

Being patient and consistent helped break the silence, and Jonas said showing Michael respect was most important.

“We all want respect; we all deserve respect. I personally think he doesn’t get that at home.” He added, “I honestly believe it’s not what we say; it’s how we say it. You have to get down to [the child’s] level of thinking for them to understand what you’re saying. Otherwise, they’re not going to listen.”

When it came to discussing Michael’s altercation with another student, Jonas was blunt with him.

“I have to put everything on the table,” Jonas said. “I told him straight up, ‘You can’t do that.’ You have to look at him straight in the face and say there are certain things you cannot do.” He then asked Michael why he hit the other student.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Jonas told Michael that he has to learn how to walk away from a student who is making him upset.

“Go to the library; give your teacher a hand, so you can walk away,” Jonas suggested, after speaking with Michael’s guidance counselor and teachers regarding the situation. His teachers are now aware of this plan, so if they see Michael walking toward the library, they know he is leaving a negative situation.

With each visit to Michael’s school, Jonas makes it a point to speak with his guidance counselor and see how things are going. What’s more, Michael knows to go straight to the guidance counselor’s office when he needs someone to talk to, and he enjoys speaking with her.

However, Michael often thinks about his family.

“He’s worried about his mom. He wants to be with his mom, but she doesn’t want to be a part of his life… she doesn’t call him, not even on his birthday,” Jonas explained.

Jonas encourages Michael to try looking on the bright side. “Tomorrow is always another day.”

When Jonas finally got Michael’s mother on the phone one day, he had a question for her.

“Why is everyone fighting for your son and you’re not? What can be that bad?” Jonas asked her.

She was quiet during the first few minutes of the phone call and then revealed that she is afraid of her son.

Reflecting back on this phone conversation, Jonas thought, “This kid is actually sitting back here worried about [his mother] and his other siblings.”

Michael does have grandparents in the area, and he speaks to his grandmother every month. His grandparents would love to adopt him. However, they are a bit concerned about his behavior. Jonas said the grandparents wonder if Michael’s behavior will revert.

In a couple of months, Jonas said a decision should be made for Michael. Regardless of what happens, Jonas is not giving up on him.

“I’m here. We can do this. We can make this happen,” Jonas told him.

Jonas is one of the over 170 CASA Volunteers in Atlantic and Cape May Counties fighting for the rights of children living in foster care. CASA is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation by making sure a qualified, compassionate adult will fight for and protect a child’s right to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect and to learn and grow in the safe embrace of a loving family. Join the Movement by calling CASA today at (609) 601-7800.