- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2006

NEW YORK — Gordon Parks, who captured the struggles and triumphs of black America as a photographer for Life magazine and then became Hollywood’s first major black director with “The Learning Tree” and the hit “Shaft,” died yesterday in New York, a family member said. A cause of death was not given. He was 93.

Mr. Parks also wrote fiction and was an accomplished composer.

“Nothing came easy,” Mr. Parks wrote in his autobiography. “I was just born with a need to explore every tool shop of my mind, and with long searching and hard work. I became devoted to my restlessness.”

He covered topics as varied as fashion, politics and sports during his time at Life, from 1948 to 1968.

But as a photographer, he was perhaps best known for his gritty photo essays on the grinding effects of poverty in the United States and abroad and on the spirit of the civil rights movement.

“Those special problems spawned by poverty and crime touched me more, and I dug into them with more enthusiasm,” he said. “Working at them again revealed the superiority of the camera to explore the dilemmas they posed.”

In 1961, his photographs in Life of a poor, ailing Brazilian boy named Flavio da Silva brought donations that saved the boy and helped purchased a new home for him and his family.

“The Learning Tree” was Mr. Parks’ first film, in 1969. It was based on his 1963 autobiographical novel of the same name, in which the young hero grapples with fear and racism as well as first love and schoolboy triumphs. Mr. Parks wrote the score and directed the film as well.

In 1989, “The Learning Tree” was among the first 25 American movies to be placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. The registry is intended to highlight films of particular cultural, historical or aesthetic importance.

The detective drama “Shaft,” which came out in 1971 and starred Richard Roundtree, was a major hit and spawned a series of black-oriented films. Mr. Parks himself directed a sequel, “Shaft’s Big Score!” in 1972.

He also published books of poetry and wrote musical compositions, including “Martin,” a ballet about the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Mr. Parks was born Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kan., the youngest of 15 children. In his 1990 autobiography, “Voices in the Mirror,” he remembered his childhood as a world of racism and poverty, but also a world where his parents gave their children love, discipline and religious faith.

He went through a series of jobs as a teen and young man, including stints as a piano player and railroad dining car waiter. The breakthrough came when he was about 25, when he bought a used camera in a pawn shop for $7.50. He became a freelance fashion photographer, went on to Vogue magazine and then to Life in 1948.

“Life magazine was eager to penetrate their ranks for stories, but the black movement thought of Life as just another white establishment out of tune with their cause,” he wrote. He said his aim was to become “an objective reporter, but one with a subjective heart.”

Recalling the making of “The Learning Tree,” he wrote: “A lot of people of all colors were anxious about the breakthrough, and I was anxious to make the most of it. The wait had been far too long. Just remembering that no black had been given a chance to direct a motion picture in Hollywood since it was established kept me going.”

Last month, health concerns kept Mr. Parks from accepting the William Allen White Foundation National Citation in Kansas, but he said in a taped presentation that he still considered the state his home and wanted to be buried in Fort Scott.

Two years ago, Fort Scott Community College established the Gordon Parks Center for Culture and Diversity.

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