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Burke Patten, the Block Museum's Communications Manager, Interviews Gordon Parks's Son, David
Gordon Parks, Children with Doll, 1942. Gordon Parks (1912-2006). Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 inches. Lent by The Capital Group Foundation. © 2006 Gordon Parks

ATLANTA, GA.- One of Gordon Parks’s four children, David Parks followed in many of the trails blazed by his father. His first book, the best-selling GI Diary, was a collection of writings and photographs documenting his experiences as an American soldier in the Vietnam War. In addition to working on films directed by this father and brother, Gordon Parks Jr., David Parks has made his own documentaries.

The Block Museum, which is currently exhibiting Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks, recently spoke with David Parks. The following is a transcript of that interview.

Block Museum: What drove your father to work in so many different fields?

David Parks: As you well know, [he was at] Life magazine for 22 years, right? That gets old [laughs]. That’s a long time to work for a high-powered organization like that. After a while, you start to loose your edge. So he took it upon himself to work on other things. He got into writing. A Choice of Weapons and The Learning Tree―he did about five autobiographies. My sister always said, “Here we go again. It’s the same one. Why are we seeing another autobiography?” And he’d say “Well, I missed a few things in the previous book.” He was a perfectionist. He loved the challenge. He was a great tennis player and athlete. Athleticism is a challenge. He like the challenge. When the opportunity came along to do The Learning Tree, [he said] “I never wrote a book before, why not try?” And the movies came along after that. He just loved the challenge.

BM: It seems that your father was largely a self-taught photographer. He did work with Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration and learned a lot there, but the early fashion photography that he started, I assume that he learned that by doing it.

DP: Back in those days, they didn’t teach photography like they do today. There wasn’t a course offered in colleges or schools. So you had to go out and apprentice. I pretty much apprenticed myself, although I ended up graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology. I was the only one in the family that had been trained as a photographer and filmmaker. Those weren’t available back in the 1940s and 1930s, so he pretty much picked it up working with other people, like an apprentice to other people. He got his start actually in Chicago. Chicago was very beneficial to his career. Marva Louis hired him to do her wardrobe photographs. So Chicago played a very important part in developing Dad as a photographer in fashion. He went on to Vogue. Actually he worked for Vogue before he worked for Life. He liked women, too. [laughs]. Married four times so he must have something going for him.

BM: What did you learn from your father?

DP: The apple don’t fall too far from the tree. My brother was the director of Superfly. I helped produce that film. I helped produce Shaft. I worked on Leadbelly, most of dad’s films and my brother’s films; my brother did nine movies as a director. Dad did about eight. I worked on the support group for them, I collaborated with them. It’s kind of like a family business in a way, except it wasn’t a business, it was kind of an art. What did I learn from Dad? He never told me anything. He just showed you. We would go on trips, I would carry his bags, load his cameras. You just picked up on it. You picked up on what it takes in order to photograph and get the job done. You learn to finish the mission.

I traveled with him since I was a kid. We lived in Europe for five years when he was with Life Magazine International. Traveled all over with him, carrying his bags. My brother and I mostly were assistants. But Dad never said, “Well, you do this, you do it this way.” He would just go ahead and show you and then maybe a week later say, “Well, what did you think about that move? What did you think about that shot? What did you think about that situation?” If you couldn’t come up with an answer then you weren’t looking. You weren’t doing your homework. And that’s pretty much the way Dad went about trying to show us how to do what he did and how to get on down the line. I learned more from my mother than I ever did from my father. If it wasn’t for her, I’d be dead [laughs].

BM: When you put together GI Diary, were you thinking of your father? Did he help you put it together?

DP: It was his suggestion that I keep a diary and take photographs. The military can get kind of boring after a while, and so he always suggested, “Keep your mind going. Get through it. All ways keep moving through it, keep your mind moving.” So when I got back his editor happened to see some of the letters I was writing Dad about what was going on, how I was doing. She said, “You know, this would be a fascinating book.” So, in a way, it was the letters I was sending home to Dad that supported the diary that I was keeping in ‘Nam, and his editor happened to pick up on those letters and said “This would be fascinating.” So it ended up with Harper Row publishing the letters and diaries.

BM: Shaft came out at what seems to have just been the right time. Its popularity was enormous. When you were all working on that film, did you have a feeling that this was something different and it could really catch on?

DP: I was asked that question up in Wichita, I did a lecture, conference last October. It’s kind of hard to explain. When you are into a movie, every movie you are going to make is going to be a blockbuster. When you got your heart and soul into it, you really don’t worry about it being a blockbuster, you worry about getting it finished the best possible way you can do it. So, when you are shooting it, you really don’t worry about whether or not it’s going to be successful. You just do it. And then you sit there and you come out with a rough cut. You’ve got three hours of a rough cut and it’s starting to look good, yea, this might work. But until the end, you put the music in, when you blend, then you say “Oh, this is great. This is really going to work.” Whether is becomes a blockbuster or not depends on how the studio promotes it. We did Shaft for a million-five, they ended up spending five million to promote it before the movie got to the screen. If the studio wants it to be successful, then they will promote it and it will be able to make it out there on its own.

BM: Your father was interested in telling a wide range of stories.

DP: I think the writing is [where] he wanted to tell the wide range of things. As far as the movies were concerned, they came to him. He didn’t say, “Hey, I want to do a movie on The Learning Tree.” He didn’t want to do a movie on Shaft. They came to him and he had to sit there and make a decision and say, “Can we do this? Am I putting my reputation on the line? If I do this and if I screw it up. . . All you have to do is mess up once in this business because all of our stuff is out front. He always made us aware of that. He said, “Look, you screw it up once, that’s it. In New York, you’re gone, you’re dead.” Sure it’s the same way in Chicago.

BM: The films that came after Shaft, the blaxploitation era, there were powerful African Americans on the screen, but there were also a lot of stereotypes. Did your father ever feel like. . .

DP: He was being used?

BM: Maybe not being used, but watching the products that came after. . .

DP: He didn’t watch them. Dad didn’t look at movies. He might go to the movies now and then, he might look at TV. Dad wasn’t a movie buff, which was probably good because if he did he probably would have chickened out on a lot of that stuff. When you don’t see anything coming, you’re not worried about it. It just hits you. It’s like in the military, when I was in ‘Nam I got wounded twice, I got wounded and I didn’t even know about it. It was the after thought of “Oh my God, what could have happened?”

I think the exploitation thing―copycat, okay. You see a million different Star Wars kinds of thing. The one that sets the standard, everyone follows, and it’s a market. When you make a movie it has to have a market. So there’s a big market in horror movies, there’s a big market in sci-fi movies. They all take off after the icon that presented the market. So, Shaft presented the market for exploitation. Hollywood found a niche and, “We gotta make some money,” because they weren’t making much money back in those days. They needed to find a market, they found it. What’s interesting about Shaft, Superfly, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and all those other movies, because I worked in the studio system on promoting, mostly white people saw those movies twice or three times, because they never had a chance to see anything about black folks up to that time. And then of course Europe will take anything that’s minority or hasn’t been shown before. The big market for black movies, more than here, Europe and Asia. That’s what happened there. But as I said, more white people saw Shaft two or three times more than black folk.

BM: When your father was shooting some of the photographs on display in the exhibition―American Gothic, Mrs. Jefferson―when your father was shooting them, did he every have the sense that this was really something. Was he aware of the power and the potency of some of his imagery?

DP: I don’t know if you are a photographer or a painter or whatever, but you really don’t think about that. What you really try to do as an artist and a photographer is to just put the best energy you can into it. You let it ride. If there’s one photograph that he thought was going to cause some controversy, yea, it was American Gothic. Because Roy Stryker said, “Go out, Gordon, and show me in your work what you think this system, this country, is all about.” And he did. You got a black woman with a mop and broom with an American flag in the back. Of course, he didn’t know if it was going to work or not. That’s probably the one photograph he thought of creating. Other than that he was a photojournalist. When you are photojournalist you grab what’s there. You don’t contrive it. One of the problems I had when I was at Rochester Institute of Technology is that they were trying to get me to be an illustrator. I wanted to be a photojournalist. And I took the photojournalism more seriously than the illustration. Today, now, illustration, that’s the market for photography. You are contriving an idea through images rather than shooting the idea as it really is. That’s the difference between the old school and the new school. But then again there’s no magazines around where you can show your photographic journalism. I was working for Life when it folded as a freelancer and I was working for Look. And when those when down the tubes you know what I said? “David you’ve got to find another way to make a living.” Seriously, at that point I made up my mind and I went into movies. I started working in the movie business because there was no other outlet. Shoot for Playboy? That wasn’t really my idea of having fun. Believe me, it’s a lot of work. Getting that work, doing that work wasn’t my style, wasn’t my cup of tea. That’s why the Diary worked. I do documentaries and stuff like that. I do history, I do historical stuff. I really don’t like to contrive anything. I like to shoot what really is the essence of the subject rather than contrive. So I had a problem with Rochester. I didn’t want to do illustration. And Dad was not an illustrator. He tried it once, no he tried it twice. This is a good [story]. I remember Alfred Hitchcock came up the house in White Plains to do a photographic session. This is Dad’s idea. He was going to do a [magazine] cover based on the story he had shot when he was on set shooting [Hitchcock] directing. He brought Alfred Hitchcock up and Alfred Hitchcock spent a day up in White Plains. Dad had him take off his shirt and he double-exposed some knives in him. [The magazine editors] said, “Oh, thanks Gordon, but no thanks.” It was so gory. “I just thought I’d give them an idea of what I felt was the horror of the man.” God, it was so horrible [laughs]. They couldn’t even run it. He didn’t want to do that type of thing anymore.

BM: Was there any difference between the fashion photography he did and his photojournalism?

DP: He liked to get outside. He didn’t like the studio. He liked to take [the models] out into the streets of Paris. As a matter of fact, that’s what he was doing over in Paris a lot, was shooting fashion for Life magazine. He liked putting them out in the natural element. Up until that point, they were shooting everything in the studio. He was one of the first photographers to take the models out of the studio and put them in a real environment. That was his journalistic influence in regards to the fashion.

BM: How was your father able to work in so many different worlds? From shooting fashion models in Paris to photographing street gangs in Harlem?

DP: It’s all about communications. It’s about writing, photography, painting, it is all about communication, so you are really not getting outside the box that much when you go into these various fields. It’s all about communication and that’s what we do as filmmakers, writers, photographers. Fashion is a form of communication. They are selling clothes. Hollywood was created, you know why Hollywood was created? To show the fashions of New York, the fashion market. That’s why they really created Hollywood, to do fashion. If you notice on the red carpet everything is, “Ooo, the gowns, the gowns.” That’s why they created the studios. They created it based on the market that would buy those clothes seen in the movies. And that’s how the motion picture industry started in this country.

BM: Your father was an African American man, working in worlds that were dominated by white people. where there was racism, still is racism, but was there something about his personality where he could be accepted in different places?

DP: Timing is everything. So when Dad came along, [Life publisher] Henry Luce wanted to get a black photographer on staff. If Henry Luce hired Gordon hired Gordon, this is a chance for “us” to show that “we ain’t racist.” To this day, can you tell me about a black fashion photographer? Can you name a black photojournalist? No. Can you name a black filmmaker outside of Spike Lee? I really think he has done a good job in hanging in there. Other than Spike Lee, Gordon Parks, and Gordon Parks Jr., there ain’t none. There isn’t one who has the stature of a icon filmmaker. So we’re still fighting for creative acceptability, of being able to be accepted as relevant. That’s my opinion. There have been a few black folks who have broke the barrier, but I think this is the last bastion, the creative area. In this country the last bastion to be tackled and dealt is the creative thing. We haven’t gotten there as a nation. Maybe [President] Obama will change that. What I mean by change is I think that people will trust us more, now that we’ve got a black president. People just, it’s not that they are racist or bigots. [They] just don’t believe that black folks can bring the dollars in, can do the job. If they can, fine, but they really don’t want to put their reputation on the line. I mean, how many black photographers have you had at your museum? And there are a lot of good ones out there but you just can’t find them. But you’ll put your reputation on the line for Gordon because he has proven himself beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s the problem. It’s not that white folks don’t like black people. It’s just that they don’t believe that they can do the job. And they don’t want to put their reputation on the line by trying to be a nice person. And I can understand that to a large extent. We haven’t been in the boardroom. We have not been in the boardroom. And this is the one thing, Dad was in the boardroom. They let him in the boardroom because they really believed that, once he did it the first time, [they] could take a chance on him. And that’s what Henry Luce was doing. He was taking a chance. His reputation as an icon in the publishing business. Roy Stryker, they took a big chance. And Gordon didn’t let them down. I think the pressure of being in that position give Gordon the energy to do what he needed to do.

BM: Do you mean the pressure of . . .

DP: If he failed, he’d be failing for all black people. Same kind of pressure that Obama’s got. Same kind of pressure. He’s going to succeed because he doesn’t want to let the black folks go down the tube. That’s a lot of pressure. When I play golf, when I don’t have money in my pocket, I play better because I don’t have the money to give them if I lose. See what pressure does to you? That’s the kind of situation my father was leading and involved in. I think that’s another. Then of course, there were always people coming forward, “Gordon, can you write this song?” “Hey, I’ll give it a shot.” I don’t know if you’ve heard his music?

BM: I heard the music for the film Shaft’s Big Score when I saw it. I haven’t heard his other music . . .

DP: Some of that stuff in there was good. We were sitting up there saying, “Well, Pops, you gave it a shot but it works. It’s not going to be a blockbuster soundtrack but it worked.” New York, they set you up to fail. If you win in New York, you’re in deep trouble. Because then people will be bringing this to you and that to you and to see if they can get you to mess up. That’s the pressure. He took on those challenges. He took on the music, he took on the films, he took on the books, the fashion. He just loved that challenge. You’d see it on the tennis court and you’d see it in his work. I didn’t beat my father in tennis until he was 60 years old. Can you believe it? He wasn’t going to give it up. He’d say “I know everyone of your weaknesses, son [laughs]. That’s one of the reasons why you can’t beat me.” The day I beat him he came over and hugged me. He said, “I guess I did a pretty good job.” As a family we traveled all over the world. I have been around the world at least once by the time I was ten years old. And so having had that experience as a young kid, I’m even worse than my father. I’m doing oil and gas now, drilling oil wells. When he’d say “Well, son, what are you doing?” I’d say “Well I’m taking a break off of shooting and films and doing documentaries and I’m doing an oil and gas deal.” He say “Okay, okay, don’t call me, I’ll call you.” That kind of energy and challenge I got from him. He kind of walked down there with blinders. Just get down, get to the end of the road, do the best job you can, and that’s what he did.

David Parks will speak about his father’s work at 6 pm on Thursday, May 7, and will introduce the film Shaft at Block Cinema at 8 pm on Friday, May 8. An audiopodcast of his May 7 discussion will be available on the Block Museum’s podcast page later in May.

Burke Patten, communications manager

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