Gordon Parks could be described as a man of firsts: the first African-American writer and staff photographer at Life, the first African-American photographer published in Vogue, and the first African-American to direct a major Hollywood film. He is more simply and most fervently remembered, however, as a tireless polymath who excelled at every art form he pursued—and they were plentiful.
After leaving the small, segregated town of Fort Scott Kansas at age 15, Parks took odd jobs throughout the country, working as a busboy, touring as a semi-pro basketball player, and (after purchasing his first camera at a pawnshop in 1938) taking portraits of society women in Chicago. By the mid-1940s, in a whirl of quick ascent and war, Parks’s images regularly edged the pages of Vogue and Life. He became best known for his beautiful, brutally candid photo essays documenting the civil rights movement, segregation, poverty, and gang culture. Parks went on to direct three Hollywood films (including the first two films in the cult classic series Shaft), write four autobiographies, publish numerous books of poetry, and compose several concertos—all ardent expressions of the realities and injustices experienced in America during his long life.