The Defining Moment
In 1940, at the age of 28, Gordon Parks walked into Frank Murphy's fashion department store in St. Paul, Minnesota. A self-taught photographer with no formal experience in fashion work, he boldly offered his services to photograph models wearing the store's fashions. After some initial disagreement between the husband-wife co-owners, Parks was given the chance to prove his merit - an event that would prove fortuitous and guided the direction of his future as a photographer. With borrowed equipment, Parks made his way through the fashion shoot that would precipitate his career in photography. Unfortunately, in Parks' inexperience, he double-exposed all but one photograph. Luckily, this one portrait, seen here, was enough to showcase his potential and he was given another chance - eventually leading him to shoot all of the department store's fashions, in addition to local media outlets.
Fath Show Stoppers, Paris, France (1951) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation
Mastering documentary work and fashion photography
His success as a photojournalist and fashion photographer proved to have a symbiotic relationship. As Roy Stryker of the FSA so presciently put it to Parks: "Someday those fashion photographs may save your life...You do whatever you can with photography to advance yourself, you will need it."
As a working photographer, being able to supplement his documentary work with fashion photography so effectively made it so he would always be able to find work in times of uncertainty in job security. His background in both fashion and documentary photography would set him apart and prove to make him an asset at Life, making his acclaimed career at the magazine possible. Working with fashion helped to inform Parks' overall style as a photographer. While he is today best known for his artful and intimate portraits of race relations, poverty, civil rights, and urban life, he is still heralded as a leading figure in mid-twentieth century fashion photography.
Gordon Parks at Vogue
The first fashion magazine of repute Parks worked for was Vogue. According to Parks, Alex Leiberman, editorial director of Conde Nast, used to say to the editors, "'If Gordon dresses a model, leave her that way unless it’s something you want to question, because I trust his taste.’" Parks later explained, "That was one of the biggest compliments I ever had - for him to tell those top editors. And those top editors would never bother me. They would say, ‘Gordon, if you like, I don’t personally like it, but Alex says you do it your way.’ I would say ‘Thank you darling, but let’s try it your way, too.’ And I would try it their way, and Alex would pick mine. I tried to learn what good taste was.”
Gordon Parks at LIFE
In 1949, as Gordon Parks was just beginning his time at LIFE, he was sent to Paris in order to cover the French collections during fashion week. It was not long after this trip that Parks was given the opportunity every photographer at LIFE yearned for - to work out of their Paris headquarters. The two years Parks spent living in Paris afforded him the chance to photograph the latest fashions in a leading capital of the fashion world - as well as acting as LIFE's window into post-war Europe. Contrary to many other fashion photographers of the time who did most of their shoots in a studio - Parks made use of the natural scenery he found himself in, preferring to shoot outside whenever possible.
Untitled, Trinidad, Cuba (1958) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation
"The early days in Kansas gave me a good sense of color, a sense of earth, a sense of feeling – a feeling for trees, light and the late light of the day. I had a natural instinct for using that in my work. And I think that was the difference from the others who used the fancy light in studios. In the first place, it was a lot less expensive to work outside and I didn’t need all the assistants that those guys needed to place lights. I took a model and an editor out; we went to a spot and had all the beauty in the world to work with. You couldn’t build those sets. That’s the way I started doing it."
Barbara Wood Wearing Esther Dorothy's Muskrat Fur Fashion, New York, New York (1948) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation
Maximilian Alaska Seal Fur Fashion, New York, New York (1948) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation
Models with Boy-Length Haircuts, New York, New York (1949) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation
Untitled, Paris, France (1951) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation
Cocoon Cape, New York, New York (1956) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation
Samuel Robert's Vivid Tops, Hoboken, New Jersey (1956) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation
Shiny Siren, Hollywood, California (1959) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation
Untitled, San Diego, California (1959) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation
During the 1970s, Parks' focus shifted to new projects beyond working as a photographer. In 1970, Essence Magazine was formed - with Parks as one of it's co-founders and editorial director. The monthly magazine celebrated African American women - with content ranging from fashion, lifestyle, and advice.
The Gordon Parks Foundation permanently preserves the work of Gordon Parks, makes it available to the public through exhibitions, books, and electronic media, and supports artistic and educational activities that advance what Parks described as “the common search for a better life and a better world.”
Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., Executive Director, The Gordon Parks Foundation; Amanda Smith, Assistant Director, The Gordon Parks Foundation; James Jordan, Collections Manager, The Gordon Parks Foundation; Brigid Slattery, Archive Assistant, The Gordon Parks Foundation.
Photographs by Gordon Parks © 2016 The Gordon Parks Foundation
Quotes by Gordon Parks from interview with Martin H. Bush, Copyright 1983,The Photographs of Gordon Parks, Wichita State University.