Gordon Parks: Filmmaker, Photographer & Renaissance Man

gparks00“Something mighty there is inside a man that takes him from being the youngest of 15 children raised in Kansas poverty, something that lets him clear the cruel hurdles implanted by a racist society, something that permits not merely survival but mastery of all that he embraced. A poet, and a pianist, a classical music composer, and one very at home with the blues, which permitted him to make the fine biopic called LEADBELLY (1976), a nice partner to his ceaselessly hip SHAFT (1971), and a journalist, a novelist and a man with enough life that even three autobiographies cannot contain the whole, a painter of oils and water colors, and a photographer of street gangs and Paris boulevards, of fashion extravaganzas and mean Rio streets, and, most of all, a man who will not yield to intimidation . . . It is not simply that he was the first black man to do all these things, but that any man was able to do all these things and do them well.” – John Loengard on Gordon Parks from The Great LIFE Photographers (2004)

Tonight TCM is offering up a very special selection of films directed by Gordon Parks and his son, Gordon Parks Jr. for your viewing pleasure. The films include THE LEARNING TREE (1969), THOMASINE AND BUSHROD (1974), AARON LOVES ANGELA (1975) and SHAFT (1971) along with a making of documentary, SOUL IN CINEMA: FILMING SHAFT ON LOCATION (1971). As LIFE magazine photo editor John Loengard makes clear in his brief biological sketch of Parks that I shared above, Parks Sr. is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and multitalented men who ever sat behind a camera and directed a film. He lived a fascinating life and dabbled in many arts but today he’s probably best remembered for the Oscar wining action-packed crime drama SHAFT. This Blaxploitation classic is one of my favorite films from the 70s and besides its entertainment value, SHAFT is a wonderful showcase for many of the themes, ideas and passions that motivated Parks throughout his career as an award-winning photographer for organizations such as FSA (Farm Security Organization), the OWI (Office of War Information), the Standard Oil Photography Project as well as publications such as Vogue magazine, Essence magazine and LIFE.

As a photographer, Parks had an extraordinary eye for composition, the natural ability to make people relax in front of his camera and limitless empathy with his subjects whether they were children living in poverty, acclaimed artists and musicians, social crusaders or glamorous movie stars. After he started working regularly for LIFE magazine in 1948, Parks was routinely asked to photograph renowned actors on and off stage. During this period he shot many dynamic and often very candid portraits of Hollywood stars that showcased his abilities and offer us an intimate look at these performers and their craft. Below is a small sampling of Parks’ work that should appeal to classic film fans.

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Gene Tierney (1950)

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Nina Foch (1950)

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Shelley Winters on the road with a stage production of BORN YESTERDAY shares a drink with some miners at a local bar in Pennsylvania (1950)

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Anne Francis (1950)

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Eartha Kitt (1952)

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Tippi Hedren (1952)

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Tallulah Bankhead & Hugh Reilly on stage in DEAR CHARLES (1954)

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Julie Harris (1954)

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Edward G. Robinson (1956)

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Gena Rowlands(1956)

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Marilyn Monroe (1956)

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Richard Burton with his daughter Kate and first wife Sybil Christopher (1957)

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Laurence Olivier & Anthony Quinn in the stage production of BECKETT (1959)

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Lonne Elder, Sidney Poitier & Ruby Dee on stage in A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1959).

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Geraldine Page & Paul Newman on stage in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1959)

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Joan Crawford with photographer Eve Arnold (1959)

Some of the most distinguished photos Parks took during this period are of actress Ingrid Bergman, who specifically asked for Parks to photograph her in Italy during the making of STROMBOLI (1950). At the time, Bergman who was married, was involved in a scandalous affair with director Roberto Rossellini. When it was discovered that Bergman was pregnant with Rossellini’s child, Hollywood gossip columnists had a field day slut-shamming the actress until her conduct was condemned on the floor of the US Senate. Friends of the actress as well as fans were shocked by her behavior, which lead Bergman to later quip, “I’ve gone from saint to whore and back to saint, all in one lifetime.” During this turbulent period, Bergman and Rossellini were being hounded by paparazzi eager to photograph the couple but Bergman desperately wanted to get control of the situation so she personally asked for Gordon Parks to join her on the set of STROMBOLI were he snapped some of the most astonishing and intimate photographs of his career. This incredible series of images capture Bergman’s isolation at the time and seem to perfectly convey the melancholy mood that was prevalent on set.

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Ingrid Bergman in Italy on the set of STROMBOLI (1950)

According to Gordon Parks’ autobiography Voices in the Mirror, it was Ingrid Bergman who first suggested to him that he should consider a career in filmmaking. Bergman even tried to get Parks work as an assistant to Rosselini but that didn’t pan out and the would-be director returned to the US. Parks eventually made his first film in Hollywood with encouragement from fellow actor and director John Cassavettes, who thought Parks semi-autobiographical novel The Learning Tree, about a young black man growing up in rural Kansas during the 1920s and 30s, would make a great movie. The success of Parks first film led him to helm SHAFT, which is an interesting conglomeration of his many interests.

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Top: Gordon Parks and Richard Roundtree
Bottom: Gordon Parks makes a Hitchcock-style cameo in SHAFT

Underneath the films slick 1970s exterior, SHAFT is a throwback to the crime pictures of the 1930s, 40s and 50s that featured hard-nosed private detectives such as Mike Hammer, Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. Parks updated this very successful formula by replacing the typically white antihero with a handsome, well-dressed black PI named John Shaft who finds himself caught up in a complicated kidnapping case involving a gang boss and the Italian mob. With help from a sympathetic white cop and a group of politically motivated young black men, Shaft commands a military-style invasion of the mob’s hideout that ends with a massive gun battle while he successfully recovers the kidnapping victim. Like any good crime picture, the characters are somewhat sketchy and none of them exactly fall into typical good guy or bad guy roles but it’s hard not to root for John Shaft who is played to perfection by Richard Roundtree. Before starring in SHAFT Roundtree had done some fashion modeling and his natural good looks and masculine appeal transformed the character of John Shaft into an important 70s sex symbol. His allure was further enhanced by the way Gordon Parks photographed him. Parks was a talented fashion photographer who had worked with magazines like Vogue and that experience undoubtedly gave him a strong understanding of how clothing moves on the body and the best way to light his models. As Richard Roundtree boldly struts down the streets of New York, it’s hard not to imagine him on a runway.

Many other elements of Gordon Parks’ photography work can be found in SHAFT, such as the Alexander Calder style mobile used as a sort of camera filter during the first sex scene between John Shaft and his girlfriend, Gwenn (Ellie Moore). Parks famously shot some of the most arresting photos of Alexander Calder and his work in 1952 for LIFE magazine, which must have made an impact on the director. There is also a notable poster of Malcolm X seen hanging on one wall, which is hard to miss. Parks was a humanitarian who was deeply committed to the social issues of his time and he shot some powerful photos of Malcom X before he was killed. The two men also developed a lasting friendship that led Malcolm to ask Gordon Parks to become the godfather of his second daughter (Qubilah Shabazz). Malcom’s murder undoubtedly weighed heavily on Parks and in SHAFT it’s noteworthy that the back militants in the film are portrayed as decent men willing to help Shaft out of a bind, which was a daring depiction of these activist groups in 1971.

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Photos by Gordon Parks

I hope my post might encourage a few reluctant viewers to tune into TCM tonight and catch SHAFT. This Blaxploitation classic has a lot more to offer audiences besides one of the best theme songs ever recorded and some kick-ass action sequences. Parks’ picture is deeply indebted to old Hollywood but it broke new ground with its bold portrayal of black characters and race relations while providing audiences with an unforgettable look at the thriving metropolis of New York City during the early 70s.

Further reading:
- Shaft by Richard H. Smith
- The Gordon Parks Foundation

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6 Responses Gordon Parks: Filmmaker, Photographer & Renaissance Man
Posted By Peter Nellhaus : September 18, 2014 11:18 pm

I’ve wondered if Jack Warner saw The Learning Tree. At the time Parks made his debut, Warner sold the studio to Seven Arts so he had no involvement with the studio that had his name. There is a bit of irony, in that a couple decades previously, another talented artist, the writer Chester Himes, very briefly worked at Warner Brothers as a story editor, until he was chased out by Jack Warner who made his racism known, documented in the book, City of Quartz.

Posted By Doug : September 19, 2014 11:24 am

Thank you, Kimberly, for this essay on Parks, indeed a renaissance
man.

Posted By Doug : September 19, 2014 4:04 pm

I meant to say more but I had to get to work-working for LIFE magazine was just about the top opportunity for a photographer, and Parks had a great eye. It makes me wonder what Parks would have done with 2014 technology for filmmaking and photography.

Posted By Arthur : September 20, 2014 1:32 pm

Excellent post, Kimberly. Growing up I was aware of many of his accomplishments, but not all. Thanks for providing a full picture of the man and his work. Interesting, and logical, that an isolated Ingrid Bergman found common cause with Parks. BTW I did catch the airing of SHAFT. It was like stepping into a time capsule, as was your piece.

Posted By swac44 : September 30, 2014 4:05 pm

I’d seen those striking Bergman photos before, but had no idea that Gordon Parks was the artist who’d taken them. Parks’ film The Super Cops shows up on TCM from time to time and is worth a look, for another very ’70s action film, if not as iconic as Shaft. I’d still like to be able to see his film about Leadbelly, with Roger E. Mosley as the legendary folk-blues singer, that one seems to have been MIA for some time now.

Posted By robbushblog : October 7, 2014 3:39 pm

Gordon Parks was a bad mother- Shut your mouth!

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