Part II: Writing With Light

This is the second part of an ongoing series studying the writings of documentary photographers Gordon Parks and Walker Evans. It is gleaned from ongoing graduate school research at the Missouri School of Journalism, University of Missouri. It is also part of an upcoming presentation at the 30th VisCom Conference. Read part one here.

There were many reasons that compelled Gordon Parks to write. Much of it could stem from his upbringing. He was born in rural Kansas, a son of dirt farmers (Unger, 1988), and went on to make acclaimed contributions to photography, literature and even Hollywood. His unending drive to succeed in myriad creative outlets stemmed, he argued, from his class and race. In an essay for a book about creativity, Parks wrote that it was “desperate search for security within a society that held me inferior simply because I was black” (Roslansky & Bronowski, 1970, p. 83), that compelled him to wear many creative hats. Growing up, Parks suffered through an environment of poverty and racism (Parks, 1975), so it followed that the revelation of life experiences through different media meant “the pain of those early years would have been worthwhile” (Roslansky & Bronowski 84).

In one of the few pieces of academic research on Parks’ writings, Reynolds explains that when paired with photography reportage, Parks’ essays offered readers a unique perspective.

By stepping into this particular writing space, Parks asserted a power afforded by painful news events in the country that had reached the pages of the popular magazines of the time. His background as a first-rate Life news photographer—a profession that involved documenting, but ostensibly not participating in such events—became all the more powerful in this instance when he joined his photography with a self-authored text. (Reynolds 58).

One reason Parks took up writing to tell stories, Reynolds (2008) argued, was borne out of the time period in which Parks was covering as a working journalist. “Parks-as-writer reflected a larger reality of increased opportunity for authorship in general, a development that might be connected to the progression of modernity” (Reynolds 58). While Reynolds’ research was focused on a specific time period in publishing personal voices during the Civil Rights movement, there is context to be found in Parks’ motivations to write essays on the movement:

I take note of Parks's rare foray into journalistic writing in order to highlight his courage, but especially its relevance. In a moment when the Civil Rights movement was being pulled in different directions, especially with the powerful public speaking of Malcolm X that now drew interviews with him and articles about him in the popular media, Parks's writing in Life was tantamount to stepping onto a stage in which the drama had already reached such a pitch that his words might sway the millions of magazine readers in a particular direction. (Reynolds 58)

Parks was caught up in a fantastic social justice struggle for equality in the United States, and he was cognizant of his role within the movement, and his place during the era. As explained in one of Parks’ more popular books, “by using photography and words and music in place of fists and guns and blood” (Kunhardt, 1968, Introduction), Parks cemented a legacy in which he reinvented himself over and over again. The documentary photography work coming from Parks during the American 1960s intimately covered Civil Rights. Parks’ work was informed by his own cultural background and deep-rooted feelings during the movement and, as Tidwell argued (2013), his photography told stories of a Civil Rights demonstrator that was not afraid to secure his or her own freedom in the face of violence. Parks’ photography captured a “love of those who dared to step out on faith and stare down physical abuse and death. It is no small thing that all this was done amidst the challenges of being a black artist or writer seeking self-actualization in a racially charged era” (Tidwell 159). It was also a way, Tidwell continued, to “make sense” of their generation’s struggles.

It could also be argued that this time period in Parks’ life spurred him to become more prolific writer, and he did pen a number of essays on the Civil Rights movement for magazines like Life, where he was a longtime photojournalist. Not only did Parks’ writing include literature and autobiography, but also music and poetry. “For me poetry, photography, writing and film-making produce the same mixture of memories,” he wrote (Parks, 1970). He found inspiration in F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing that a man needs to dream in order to live: “To dream remarkable and impossible dreams and to have the desire to fulfil those dreams” (Reynolds, 2008, p. 81). When his autobiographical novel was turned into a movie, Parks wrote the film’s score (Parks, 1970). He was the first African-American director in Hollywood with the debut of Shaft, a film that became known as a symbol of “blaxploitation” in 1971. However, for Parks, it was:

... one of those firsts that you get a little tired of because there should not be that ‘first black’ all the time. People think possibly that you are proud of it — you are not really. We should have had black directors years ago. Maybe the Indians would have won more often if we had. (Parks, 1970, p. 88)

Parks’ photographs were often compared to his writings. In the preface to A Poet and his Camera, Spender (1968) wrote, that the fact Parks “is a poet with his camera as well as with his pen, show, I think, in his concentration on the image.” That collection of photography paired with images is full of juxtapositions amongst Parks’ writing and photography. Many seem intentionally married in content, such as “The Seduction Is Love,” “Flight Over Africa,” “Tarde Azul,” “Kansas Land,” and “Hope.” This was intentional, Kunhardt argued (1968), “associated with the searingly realistic photographs he has taken of the black ghetto and plight of his people … [a] series of poetic images, flashes of photographic insights mingled with word poems — some connected, some not.” Others, such as the photographs and poetry for “The Road,” do not seem related. Inside another collection of images and writings, Moments Without Proper Names, there seems to be a more direct relationship between Parks’ essays and photographs. They do not, however, seem to exhibit the same literal explanations that often go with his photo essays or photo stories, but still are directly related. Many of these relationships can be found in: “If I Were An Old Dying Man Now,” in which Parks describes the culture of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, detailing in consistent rhythm of verse how he would describe it to a future generation; and “I Speak of a Hero,” a short essay about boxer Muhammad Ali.

Perhaps the period in which Parks’ photography was most closely linked to his writings was during the 1960s. Parks covered the leaders of the Civil Rights movement and their detractors, the movement’s bullies and its victims. He often penned essays for Life, including what it was like to live in poverty for a family in Harlem, New York, a proverbial ground zero of racial unrest, as well as writings about Malcolm X’s assassination. He was thorough in his reportage, often including long quotations in his essays. He utilized plain-speak, and he sparely — but with impact — described scenes, and he allowed his subjects to speak for themselves. He maintained a balanced attitude as a journalist yet directly opinionized the struggle for social justice in which he had tremendous perspective. In some essays he used his unique position as an African-American who was born into poverty but achieved great artistic success, to build his own character and voice into his essays. In one essay in 1967, Parks utilized this perspective with great impact:

I finally asked Stokely, ‘What do you really mean by Black Power?’

‘I’ve given up trying to explain it,’ he said. ‘The whites never really listen when I do anyway.’

‘But I’m not white and I’m listening,’ I insisted.

For the last time,’ he said, ‘Black Power means black people coming together to form a political force and either electing representatives or forcing their representatives to speak their needs.’ (Parks, 1967)

For a piece directly after the death of Malcolm X, Parks demonstrated his intimacy with sources and the movement’s leaders, describe scenes with Malcolm’s family. The reportage here was intimate, yet maintained the weighty scope of a journalist:

On the night of Malcolm’s death, at the home of friends where his family had taken refuge, I sat with his wife Betty, his two oldest children and a group of his stunned followers, watching a television review of his stormy life. When his image appeared on the screen, blasting away at the injustices of ‘the enemy,’ a powerfully built man sitting near me said softly, ‘Tell ‘em like it is, Brother Malcolm, tell it like it is.’ (Parks, 1965).

That essay also contained his own conflicted feelings: “Malcolm’s years of ranting against the ‘white devils’ helped create the climate of violence that finally killed him, but the private man was not a violent one. he was brilliant, ambitious and honest. And he was fearless” (Parks, 1965).

    The time period in which Parks lived saw the rise of America as a global superpower, and while Parks’ job as a photojournalist took him around the world, his writings, as well as his photography, seemed to exhibit a strong inner need to convey his own life experiences growing up as a minority in a country with an oppressive majority. While foreign wars raged, he covered a social justice war at home, and even though he had risen from a poor childhood into an higher economic class, he did not stray from his heritage and became an important voice of his era.