Gordon Parks, who captured the struggles and triumphs of black America as a photographer for Life magazine and then became Hollywood’s first major black director with “The Learning Tree” and “Shaft,” died Tuesday in New York. He was 93.
Parks also wrote fiction and was an accomplished composer.
“Nothing came easy,” Parks wrote in his autobiography. “I was just born with a need to explore every tool shop of my mind, and with long searching and hard work. I became devoted to my restlessness.”
He covered everything from fashion to politics to sports during his 20 years at Life, from 1948 to 1968.
But as a photographer, he was perhaps best known for his gritty photo essays on the grinding effects of poverty in the United States and abroad and on the spirit of the civil rights movement.
“Those special problems spawned by poverty and crime touched me more, and I dug into them with more enthusiasm,” he said. “Working at them again revealed the superiority of the camera to explore the dilemmas they posed.”
The youngest of 15 children, he was born in Fort Scott, Kansas and dropped out of high school after his mother died. His jobs included playing piano in a brothel before he became interested in photography while working as a train porter. He then went to work for the Farm Security Administration.
In 1961, his photographs in Life of a poor, ailing Brazilian boy named Flavio da Silva brought donations that saved the boy and purchased a new home for him and his family. He also made a short documentary about the boy and went on to make other docus such as the Emmy-winning “Diary of a Harlem Family.”
“The Learning Tree” was Parks’ first feature, in 1969. It was based on his 1963 autobiographical novel of the same name, in which the young hero grapples with fear and racism as well as first love and schoolboy triumphs. Parks wrote the score as well as directed.
In 1989, “The Learning Tree” was among the first 25 American movies to be placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
The detective drama “Shaft,” which came out in 1971 and starred Richard Roundtree, was a major hit and along with Melvin van Peebles “Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song” spawned the blaxploitation genre. Parks himself directed a sequel, “Shaft’s Big Score,” in 1972, and wrote the score for the sequel. His other Hollywood films were “Supercops” and “Leadbelly,” but he never felt completely accepted in the studio system, with his last credit the TV movie “Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey.”
He also published books of poetry and wrote musical compositions including “Martin,” a ballet about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
His son Gordon Parks Jr., who died in 1979, directed “Superfly.” He had three other children.