At the age of twenty-five, Parks was struck by photographs of migrant workers in a magazine and bought his first camera, a Voigtländer Brillant, for $12.50 at a Seattle, Washington, pawnshop. The photography clerks who developed Parks’ first roll of film, applauded his work and prompted him to seek a fashion assignment at a women’s clothing store in St. Paul, Minnesota. Those photographs caught the eye of Marva Louis, the elegant wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. She encouraged Parks to move to Chicago in 1940, where he began a portrait business and specialized in photographs of society women. Over the next few years, Parks moved from job to job, developing a freelance portrait and fashion photographer sideline. He began to chronicle the city’s South Side black ghetto and, in 1941, an exhibition of those photographs won Parks a photography fellowship with the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
After the FSA disbanded, Parks remained in Washington, D.C. as a correspondent with the Office of War Information. Finally, disgusted with the prejudice he encountered, he resigned in 1944. Moving to Harlem, Parks became a freelance fashion photographer for Vogue. He later moved to the Standard Oil Photography Project in New Jersey, which assigned photographers to take pictures of small towns and industrial centers.
Despite racist attitudes of the day, the Vogue editor, Alexander Liberman, hired him to shoot a collection of evening gowns. Parks photographed fashion for Vogue for the next few years and he developed the distinctive style of photographing his models in motion rather than poised.
A 1948 photographic essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine. For twenty years, Parks produced photographs on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway, poverty, and racial segregation, as well as portraits of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, and Barbra Streisand.
In the 1950s, Parks worked as a consultant on various Hollywood productions. He later directed a series of documentaries on black ghetto life that were commissioned by National Educational Television. With his film adaptation of his autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree in 1969, Parks became Hollywood’s first major black director. It was filmed in his home town of Fort Scott, Kansas. Parks also wrote the screenplay and composed the musical score for the film, with assistance from his friend, the composer Henry Brant. Shaft, a 1971 detective film directed by Parks and starring Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, became a major hit that spawned a series of films that would be labeled as, blaxploitation. Parks’ feel for settings was confirmed by Shaft, with its portrayal of the super-cool leather-clad, black private detective hired to find the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem racketeer. Parks also directed the 1972 sequel, Shaft’s Big Score.
Parks’s other directorial credits include The Super Cops (1974) and Leadbelly (1976), a biopic of the blues musician Huddie Ledbetter. In the 1980s, he made several films for television and composed the music and a libretto for Martin, a ballet tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., which premiered in Washington, D.C. during 1989. It was screened on national television on King’s birthday in 1990. In 2000, as an homage, he had a cameo appearance in the Shaft sequel that starred Samuel L. Jackson in the title role as the namesake and nephew of the original John Shaft.
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