A new generation of film aficionado was introduced to the character of Shaft when Sam Jackson starred in the 2003 re-make. While it was a fresh attempt at modern storytelling, the film didn’t quite have the same intensity or ‘storytelling without words’ feel that the original had. What was missing? The touch of famed photographer Gordon Parks.

Had Parks’ not been acclaimed as a photographer, acquiring the sometimes burdensome ‘first’ title of anything may have been daunting. Not so for Parks, the first African American to direct a major Hollywood movie, The Learning Tree. Parks also wrote the score and screenplay.  His next film, Shaft, was a major box office hit and was one of the highest grossing films in 1971. Starring the testosterone laden Richard Roundtree in the title role of detective John Shaft, Isacc Hayes’s theme song for the film won an Oscar.

A native of Fort Scott, Kansas, Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born November 30, 1912. After the death of his mother, Sarah, Parks left his father, Jackson, to tend their vegetable farm and began a journey of a lifetime to explore the world. He was 14 years old.

While still in his mid-20’s, Joe Louis’ wife, Marva, admired Parks’ fashion photography. Relocating to Chicago, Parks worked intermittently for several government agencies documenting by camera migrant workers and veterans. This was interspersed with work for Vogue and Life magazines. He had a distinct eye for the subject, forcing the viewer to see its very element or the beauty of the matter. Parks would seek that beauty in the ugliest of situations as if he was determined to show the world that there is grace in nearly all creation. Such was the case when he spent time traveling the deep South in the mid-1950’s. Parks’ work assigned humanity and dignity to those subjected to segregation and Jim Crow.

At segregated water fountain. Mobile, 1956.

Untitled. Mobile, 1956.

Outside looking in. Mobile, 1956.

Untitled. Shady Grove, 1956.

Black schoolroom. Shady Grove, 1956.

Atlanta air terminal. 1956.

Recommended Reading

A Choice of Weapons by Gordon Parks & forward by Wing Young Huie (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010)

Half-Past Autumn by Gordon Parks (Bulfinch, 1998)

Field of Vision: The Photographs of Gordon Parks (Library of Congress, 2011)