If you are an artist that is struggling to determine how to get past your own fear and just “do it” as the Nike slogan would say, Gordon Parks is an absolute inspiration, as he fought against adversity to become one of the most prolific and notable artists in the 20th century. His works are forever embedded in American culture and he’s a true example of what it is to be a jack of all trades. Here’s what this self-taught renaissance man teaches us on how to face your fear and thrive in your art!
Your struggles are your greatest strengths. In his early life, the cards were seemingly stacked against Gordon in many ways. He was the youngest of fifteen children, born in the small segregated town of Fort Scott, Kansas where the student advisors discouraged black students from pursuing higher education. There was a woman who literally told him that going to college was a waste of resources. The mindset of the time was that black people were only fit to be busboys and maids. Then, if that wasn’t enough to make things tough, his mother suddenly passed away when he was fourteen years old, which ultimately lead to him being homeless at age fifteen.
Fight Fear with Fear. At this time Gordon was without a home and a solid direction for his life, which was ultimately terrifying and heartbreaking for him. Even though this could be considered the lowest point of his life, he channeled his fear to fuel his drive. He worked any odd job he could find to survive, ultimately excelling as a pianist, singer, busboy, and even a semi-professional basketball player! Parks said it best.
“At first I wasn’t sure that I had the talent, but I did know I had a fear of failure, and that fear compelled me to fight off anything that might abet it.”
So sidebar: Imposter Syndrome is REAL and it’s easy to question your own ideas as being valid. The fear of failure can seem like a big boulder around the neck. But think about it, what’s more terrifying? Allowing the fear to turn into self-hatred because you didn’t do what you wanted? Or being afraid of what will happen after you do it? It’s quite all right to be afraid the whole time you’re walking down that road, and at the end of the day, satisfaction is at the end of it. So, turn that fear into a wrecking ball, push that fear forward and make it work for you.
Your artistic purpose will find you at the right time. Don’t live by a timeframe of expectation. Typically, we are told that individuals who are masters at their craft start early in their life. However, if you haven’t got there quite yet, please don’t despair about the years gone by! Sometimes it takes a little while for your passion to be fully realized in you. Parks is definitely an exception to the rule as he stumbled upon photography at the ripe age of 25. By that time he had worked every profession under the sun to survive, but really had no ultimate plan of success at that point. On a whim, he decided to try his hand at the profession upon watching the film The Bombing of the U.S.S Panay. When the war photographer, Norman Alley received accolades at the end of the production, Gordon was inspired to venture to a local pawn shop and purchase his first camera, a Voigtlander Brillant for $7.50 and taught himself how to shoot.
The clerks at the lab who developed his film and encouraged him to pursue it professionally. From then on the rest is history! Gordon began his craft in the glamorous world of fashion which further defined his artistic vision. He artfully combined expression and movement, allowing the models to shine in their best light.
Listen to your own voice. You are your BEST teacher. In today’s world, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with what others are doing and what individuals are telling you is the right thing to do. But, perhaps the best way to achieve success is to focus inward and listen to YOURSELF because you are ultimately the only one that can draw from your own unique experiences in this life. Own your voice and trust it to lead you forward. Gordon quite literally taught himself everything he knew. Essentially, his past experiences with poverty and discrimination were the education that formed his impeccable talents. So, keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need any type of pedigree to put your art into motion. Parks was the first black photographer to shoot for LIFE magazine and had no formal education in the field. Without any education in film, he became the first major black director in Hollywood, directing the most iconic blaxploitation film ever, Shaft, and he also composed the score!
Using Your Talents To Serve Others. What makes Gordon Park’s works so incredibly moving and powerful is the fact that he used the camera as his “choice of weapons” to be a voice for the voiceless. He used his eye to speak loudly and unapologetically. You know how they say that a picture is worth a thousand words? Nothing is more true than gazing upon the photography that Parks created. I noticed upon viewing his photography, the subjects of his photos rarely seem posed. He was always an invisible force capturing a day in their life, and it had to be said in a way that words simply couldn’t.
In 1956 (my mother’s birth year!) Gordon went to Alabama as he was commissioned by Life magazine to detail the peril of Jim Crow. He stayed with the Causey family and followed them on their daily activities as a black middle-class family at the time. The photos he captured were dreamlike in their warm technicolor color composition, and the 1950s aesthetic of the family was lovely to see. However, the racist and unequal life for them was plainly clear. This feature in Life ultimately caused such an uproar, that the Causey family lost everything and was run out of town. Gordon asked the magazine to help the family relocate and start over, and the mayor of the town even threatened to tar and feather him! It’s so amazing to me, because the feature article was not particularly defamatory, and no violence was depicted. It was simply the day in the life of black Americans. Yet, the mindset of racism is so contradictory in its evil. The devastating reaction of the white locals seemed to say “We know what we are doing is atrocious, because we want to treat black people poorly, but we don’t want anyone to know about it.”
Gordon’s photo shown on the top left was especially egregious for blending the dreamy and ugly reality black children had befallen. The children, dressed colorfully and gently, could not understand why they were barred from the playground that was right at their fingertips. In their innocence, they could not conceive the concept of racism, which completely reveals the audacious stupidity of it all. If children can’t comprehend this awful practice, then why does it exist in the first place? In Gordon’s signature style, he seamlessly floated between both worlds, allowing the children to be seen AND heard. The fame and controversy he gained from his assignments were truly garnered. Yet he never did his work to serve his own ego but allowing his subjects to speak in the most visceral, yet quiet way. In a sense, Gordon would immerse himself in the people he photographed and present their world as alive and worthy to be seen
“The photographer begins to feel big and bloated and so big he can’t walk through one of these doors because he gets a good byline; he gets notices all over the world and so forth, but they’re really – the important people are the people he photographs.”
Perhaps his most famous work American Gothic juxtaposes the Grant Wood portrait by putting Ella Watson, a quiet cleaning lady at the center of attention. It’s groundbreaking in the fact that it calls attention to a black woman who is not a celebrity, while also questioning what the “American Dream” really is for a single mother cleaning floors to support her family. Gordon could have stopped there, but he visited Ella and her family and got a deeper peek into her life and story. In a sense, Gordon would immerse himself in the people he photographed and present their world as alive and worthy to be seen. He was even an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement, photographing the likes of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Martin Luther King.
This man had an amazing life! He seems to be able to capture every major chapter of American life from the 1940s until now. He was truly a historian and was even a humanitarian as well. his gripping and unflinching feature chronicling a young boy named Flavio in Rio de Janeiro, caused a deluge of support to save him and his family from the tragic life they were living.
Perhaps in dealing with the fear of failure, it may be easier to jump into the abyss knowing that your art is essentially bigger than you. It has the opportunity to inspire others and to even change lives. Photography is such an amazing medium in that one photo can even change the course of history. I’d like to think that this one is well on the way to doing just that. Gordon dedicated his life to his craft but also dedicated himself to the people in front of his lens. Whether it was through sweeping and luscious fashion photography or raw photojournalism, directorial debuts, or musical compositions, he overcame his circumstances and directed the course of his life, leaving a legacy to be admired. So trust yourself and change your world!
Want to know more about the blessed and expansive life of Gordon Parks? Check out his autobiography A Choice of Weapons, here, as well Born Black, and Invisible Man his collaboration with Ralph Ellison. Also be sure to watch his documentary Half Past Autumn.