Archive for Sunday, September 20, 1998


September 20, 1998


Internationally acclaimed photographer-musician Gordon Parks says Kansas has remained his ``touchstone.''

Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective

Gordon Parks

ust follow your Momma's teachings and you'll be all right'' instructed Poppa to the youngest of his 15 children just after Sarah Parks died. And what teachings those must have been to enable 15-year-old Gordon to leave Fort Scott alone and with little education, to become a world-famous photographer, photojournalist, writer, composer, poet, movie director and beloved humanitarian.

Now 85, and ``at half past autumn I'm all roses, thorns, shadows and dreams. ... I still have a passion for living.'' His only regrets? Sorrow that his parents did not live to see him fulfill their dreams and his, and that they still lie in Fort Scott's segregated cemetery.

In ``Half Past Autumn'' (Bulfinch Press, $65), Parks includes 17 chapters on his multifaceted career, all liberally laced with his stark black-and-white and brilliant color photography. He both starts, and ends, with ``Kansas, always my touchstone.''

Although he painfully documents the results of segregation in chapters on Kansas, Harlem, black fighter pilots and civil rights, and includes a long section on Ella Watson, the black charwoman in the soul-searing ``American Gothic,'' Parks has never allowed bitterness to master him. Instead he focuses on his and, he hopes, others' ``choice of weapons'': words, cameras, music, intellect, feelings and the basic goodness of people.

With a used camera purchased for $7.50, Parks began his career first as a fashion photographer at Vogue, using colors, shapes, models and clothes to form breathtaking compositions. (Parks still loves fashion photography and includes recent works). Then with that skill developed, he turned to documentary photography, photographing tenements, commuters, migrants, children, riots and ``American Gothic.''

Life magazine hired him for both fashion and documentary photography and sent him with his family to Europe in 1950, their first experience in nonracist living. After witnessing the death of a young matador, Parks realized he was composing elegiac music in his head. Six months later his first piano concerto was performed.

Poetry followed. So did portraits of displaced kings and queens, villagers, refugees and Cold War life.

Then Flavio. A Life magazine assignment sent Parks to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in 1961 for a story on Latin American poverty. He focused on the da Silva family of 10. Flavio was the oldest, sickly, dirty cook and caretaker for the seven younger ones, and barely 10 himself. Parks' compassion enabled him to write and photograph perhaps his most memorable work.

Life's readers quickly contributed $30,000 to move the da Silvas and bring Flavio to the United States for life-saving medical care. Parks here completes the sweet/sad chapter of Flavio's life. He lives, healthy but unhappily, in the house Life readers bought his family, ``his fondest dreams chewed up without good reason.''

Civil rights photojournalism preceded his first autobiographical novel, ``The Learning Tree.'' Suddenly he was called by Hollywood to direct a movie of it, becoming the first black film director. Eighteen other novels and several movies followed.

In 1986, Gordon Parks was named Kansan of the Year and is proud of that title. Today he continues new ways of photographing, writing, composing and simply being. He devotes his closing chapter to his family. Married and divorced three times, Parks lovingly recalls Sally, Elizabeth and Genevieve, and their magnificent years together.

``I will walk beside them ... and they will be there for me'' (Indeed, all three did stand together with him at the opening of his ``Retrospective'' exhibit in Washington, D.C.). He concludes, ``My children and grandchildren are like a gathering of fine jewels.''

Surely Kansans and others recognize Gordon Parks as one of our finest jewels as well.

Note: Gordon Parks received many honorary doctorates, but no high school diploma. Lawrence High School had the honor of rectifying this when he spoke there in 1993. Charles Park, then assistant principal at LHS, awarded his great uncle an honorary LHS diploma.

-- by Sandra Wiechert, community relations coordinator at Lawrence Public Library

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