Gordon Parks - photo by Self portrait by Gordon Parks
On May 24th The Gordon Parks Foundation held their annual awards dinner and auction to honor the late Gordon Parks. The elegant venue was at Cipriani, just east of Times Square in New York City. The mission of the foundation is, in their words “to honor individuals who have contributed their lives to the arts and permanently preserves the works of Gordon Parks and other artists, making it available to the public through exhibitions, books, and electronic media, and supports artistic and educational activities that advance what Gordon described as “the common search for a better life and a better world.”
Honorees include Founders of Public School and Creative Directors of DKNY Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow, artist and entertainer Janelle Monae, photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson. Leonard Lauder and Judy Glickman Lauder were presented with the Gordon Parks Patron of the Arts Awards. The evening’s Co-Chairs included Alicia Keys, Kaseem ‘Swizz Beatz” Dean, Karl Lagerfeld, Usher IV, Grace Raymond and Alexander Soros. Guests included Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Robert DeNiro, Ronald Perelman, Sheila Nevins, Russell Simmons and Kathleen Cleaver, with musical performances by Jon Batiste and Stay Human.
The event took place at the chic Cipriani in the Times Square area of NYC. This is always a spirited and moving event, given who it’s for. Born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks on November 30, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas, Gordon Parks was a true renaissance man. As a photographer, composer, pianist, poet, writer and film director, Parks was very prominent in American documentary photojournalism starting in the 1940’s and remained highly active in that field through the 1970’s. Mr. Parks was especially concerned in issues regarding civil rights, poverty and African-Americans. Mr. Parks soon began to include glamour photography in his pantheon as well. Mr. Parks was the first black photographer hired by the then major Life magazine in 1947, where he became a key staffer. Mr. Parks would go on to be their photographer for a series of powerful images for a federal government study of poverty in America that Life featured as a salient essay in 1961.
In 1971 Parks became one of the first black director-producers for a studio backed film, that being “Shaft,” and was thereby one of the creators of a new sub genre that the the film industry would dub “blaxploitation” after that term was coined by Los Angeles’ NAACP then head and former film publicist Junius Griffin. Griffin combined the words black and exploitation for this new kind of work that was the first to regularly feature soundtracks of funk and soul music with primarily all black casts. Variety magazine credited both Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song by director-producer-actor-writer Melvin Van Peebles. Both films were released in 1971. These two films led a charge of many such types of films to follow, such as the popular and effective Superfly the following year with its excellent soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield. The sub genre in its original state lasted through the late 1970’s. Some films such as Quentin Tarantino’s strong Jackie Brown, released in 1997, with the lead played by the original era’s Pam Grier, is a prime example of paying respectful homage to the Blaxploitation milieu.
A big part of the homage that we pay Mr. Parks the man is for his timeless and universal innovations, ideas, talents, contributions and especially his deeply felt humanity to our culture and the world over. They’re for the ages.