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Topic: Gordan Parks:IN MEMORIAM 1912-2006 An Icon, a Pioneer

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    Posted on Wed, Mar. 08, 2006 IN MEMORIAM 1912-2006An icon, a pioneer BY BECCY TANNER AND CHRISTINA M. WOODS The Wichita Eagle [img:c6d5a2ca1f]http://www.kansas.com/images/kansas/kansas/14046/197304118862.jpg[/img:c6d5a2ca1f] Gordon Parks, who rose from extreme poverty and segregation in Fort Scott to become one of the nation's most distinguished artistic icons, died Tuesday in his apartment in New York City. He was 93. "We've lost a fantastic person, and I just hope that we're all better for him being here," said Wichita architect Charles McAfee, a close friend of Mr. Parks. A funeral for Mr. Parks will be held in New York City, said Jill Warford, executive director of the Gordon Parks Center for Culture and Diversity in Fort Scott. His body will then be brought to Fort Scott for a service, and he will be buried at the Evergreen Cemetery in Fort Scott, next to his parents. The times and dates of the services are pending. Throughout his career, Mr. Parks captured life through art. "We have a hard time trying to pigeonhole Gordon Parks because he was excellent in so many areas. He was a renaissance man," said John Edgar Tidwell, an associate professor of English at the University of Kansas who teaches African-American literature. "He excelled in photography, movie directing, movie score writing, autobiographies, poetry, painting, and the list goes on and on," Tidwell said. "What drove him was the fear of failure." As a young boy, Mr. Parks and his family were forced to live in an all-black neighborhood, and he attended an all-black school. The memories of those days gave him a hatred of Kansas that he struggled with all his life. It also shaped his art, which showed both the depths of poverty and discrimination and the lives of the famous and powerful. The early years When he was 15, his mother died and he went to live with his sister in St. Paul, Minn. Mr. Parks began a career as a documentary photographer after working as a busboy, a pianist and a dining-car waiter on the Northern Pacific Railway. In 1938 he bought his first camera at a Seattle pawn shop. Within months he had his pictures exhibited in the store windows of the Eastman Kodak store in Minneapolis, and he began to specialize in portraits of African-American women. He also talked his way into making fashion photographs for an exclusive St. Paul clothing store. Marva Louis, the wife of the heavyweight champion Joe Louis, saw his photographs and was so impressed that she suggested that he move to Chicago for better opportunities. In Chicago, Mr. Parks continued to produce society portraits and fashion images, but he also turned to documenting the slums of the South Side. His efforts gained him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, which he spent as an apprentice with the Farm Security Administration's photography project in Washington. One of his best-known photographs, taken in 1942, was "American Gothic," which shows Ella Watson, an African-American cleaning woman, standing with her broom and mop in front of an American flag at the Farm Security Administration building. "Photography," Mr. Parks once wrote, "was the one way I could express myself about discrimination." The artist's range From 1948 to 1961, Mr. Parks produced some of the nation's most memorable photographs while on assignment for Life magazine. His photo essays touched on subjects ranging from Harlem gang members to the world of high fashion. Mr. Parks was a pioneer in the development of American photography after World War II, said David Butler, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University. "His was a very matter-of-fact approach, where he used very deadpan images, but they pack a lot of punch," Butler said. "He was very good at catching a low moment. It's almost a photojournalism approach, but his work really falls into fine art photography." Kansas has produced few artists more important than Mr. Parks, Butler said. "He's an artist that people in Kansas really know about and care about," he said. "I would bet that name means more to people here than any other Kansas artist's name." The Ulrich has four works acquired from Mr. Parks in 2000: "Negro Woman in Her Bedroom," from 1942; "Uncle James Parks," from 1949; "Department Store, Birmingham, Ala.," from 1956; and "At the Poverty Board, Bessie, Kenneth, Little Richard, Norman Jr. and Ellen," from 1967. The Wichita Art Museum does not collect photography, said chief curator Stephen Gleissner, "but if we did we would definitely want and have Gordon Parks because he's so good." "He captured the human experience in a way that, on the one hand, is the kind of largest human experience but, on the other, is done in a way that looks like it's just in the moment," he said. 'Jackie Robinson of film' Mr. Parks was also a writer, publishing eight books and six volumes of poetry. He made seven films. His first film, "The Learning Tree," based on a book he wrote about growing up amid racial discrimination in Kansas in the 1920s, was made in 1969 and filmed at Fort Scott. The Library of Congress included it on its National Film Registry, which highlights films of cultural, historical or aesthetic importance. Mr. Parks later produced and directed the films "Shaft" and "Shaft's Big Score." "Gordon Parks was like the Jackie Robinson of film," Donald Faulkner, the director of the New York State Writers Institute, once said. "He broke ground for a lot of people -- Spike Lee, John Singleton." But for all his accomplishments, Mr. Parks was known for his humility. "He was down to earth," said Eric Key, director of the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita. "In 1997 I first started making contact with him. He didn't know me from Adam.... Here was a man with so much stature and such an entourage. I started to call him Mr. Parks. He told me to call him Gordon." Tidwell, from KU, had similar memories: "He was just the most humble person I ever met." Those who knew Mr. Parks also were amazed at how he continued to achieve, despite all odds. "He was somebody who never graduated from high school but distinguished himself in so many ways," Tidwell said. "To me, I think Gordon Parks was one of the most important ambassadors this state has ever seen.... When he left this state, he took a part of Kansas with him. He began to see this state not only as his birthplace, but his rock and source of inspiration. He refueled and energized when he came back to the state." But it took many years before Mr. Parks could resolve the racial bitterness he felt about Kansas. The fact that he did, Tidwell said, took him to another level. "He always talks about the love-hate relationship he had about Kansas.... What he managed to do was find a way of easing the bitterness away from himself. He always said, 'I have a right to be bitter, but I couldn't let bitterness consume me. If bitterness consumed me, I would have lost.' " Returning to Kansas It wasn't until the last few decades that Mr. Parks began to return to Kansas regularly. In 1998, he returned to receive the first-ever Distinguished Arts Award from the Kansas Arts Commission. He described the award as more important than his 40 honorary doctoral degrees and dozens of other awards. "In so much of his work, Kansas is central," Warford said. "He never forgot he was a poor, black kid from Kansas." Kansas became Mr. Parks' Learning Tree, said Deborah Dandridge, field archivist for the Kansas Collections at the University of Kansas. "You cannot study the nation's culture without including Kansas and Gordon Parks," Dandridge said. "You can't understand Gordon Parks unless you understand Fort Scott and his experience there." McAfee said he and Mr. Parks became friends about three decades ago. McAfee was playing in a tennis tournament and Mr. Parks attended. During a banquet, McAfee invited Mr. Parks to exhibit some of his work at Ulrich Museum at WSU, which McAfee designed. Mr. Parks refused. McAfee persisted and called WSU officials to set it up. McAfee remembers Mr. Parks asking, "You really want me to come out there?" McAfee said, "The rest is history. He came out. We had a number of receptions for him on different trips here at my house.... Kansas is a better place for him, Gordon Parks, having been born here and being buried here."