Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006) was a photographer, musician, writer, and filmmaker. He is best known for his photographic series for LIFE magazine, and as the director of the 1971 film Shaft. Born in Fort Scott, KS, Parks faced discrimination from an early age. He left home as a teenager, and first picked up a camera at the age of 25, after seeing images of migrant workers in a magazine. Parks bought his first camera at a pawnshop, and later found employment with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which was then documenting the plight of the nation’s poor. In 1941, Parks won a photography fellowship for his images of the inner city.
When the FSA disbanded in 1943, Parks became a freelance photographer, working for fashion magazines and documenting humanitarian issues. In 1948, he produced a photo essay on the life of a Harlem gang leader, which earned him widespread acclaim and a job as the first African American staff photographer and writer for LIFE magazine. Parks would remain at the magazine for 20 years, focusing on themes of racism and poverty, as well as taking pictures of celebrities and politicians such as Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and Barbara Streisand. His most famous images, such as Emerging Man (1952) and American Gothic, Washington, D.C. (1942), have become iconic images, and played an important role in the growing Civil Rights Movement.
In addition to his work as a photographer, Parks also became a successful filmmaker, becoming the first African American to direct a major Hollywood movie, The Learning Tree, which he also wrote. He then went on to direct Shaft, one of the most successful movies of 1971.
He continued working up until his death in 2006, winning numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts in 1988, and over 50 honorary doctorates. He died of cancer at the age of 93, in his home in New York City.