Gordon Parks — the accomplished photographer, film director and writer — died yesterday at the age of 93. He moved from Kansas to St. Paul as a teenager after the death of his mother, and St. Paul claimed him as its native son despite his Kansas roots. St. Paul is is where he began his career as a photographer; his colorful autobiography A Choice of Weapons, the first of his several memoirs, opens with the death of his mother and his move to St. Paul. (Parks’s camera was his “weapon” of choice.) The book has been kept in print by the Minnesota Hisorical Society.
His New York Times obituary follows the course of his varied career. The shorter Star Tribune story focuses on the local angle and provides his magnanimous take on a key moment:
Parks loved to tell the story about how he got his start by boldly walking into an exclusive clothing store called Frank Murphy’s and asking if someone was needed to take photos of the models hired for a runway show. He didn’t mention that he didn’t own a camera or have a lick of experience.
Murphy said he wasn’t interested. “I was on my way out of the store when his wife stopped me and told me to come back after closing,” Parks recalled while attending a retrospective of his work at Walker Art Center a decade ago. “Later I asked her why she took a chance on me, and she said she had just had an argument with Frank and was trying to get under his skin.”
He chuckled, then added, “Actually, I think she was just a woman who had a great heart.”
The bitter photo below derives from Parks’s apprentice series “Ella Watson, U.S Government charwoman.”
My first photograph of [Watson] was unsubtle. I overdid it and posed her, Grant Wood style, before the American flag, a broom in one hand, a mop in the other, staring straight into the camera. Stryker took one look at it the next day and fell speechless.
“Well, how do you like it?” I asked eagerly.
He just smiled and shook his head. “Well?” I insisted.
“Keep working with her. Let’s see what happens,” he finally replied. I followed her for nearly a month–into her home, her church, and wherever she went. “You’re learning,” Stryker admitted when I laid the photographs out before him late one evening. “You’re showing you can involve yourself in other people. This woman has done you a great service. I hope you understand this.” I did understand.