© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The 'grit and grace' of pioneering Kansas photographer Gordon Parks

A photograph from the late 1980s shows Gordon Parks in his New York home.
David Finn
National Gallery of Art Library
A photograph from the late 1980s shows Gordon Parks in his New York home.

A new biography by friend and author Ann Parr covers the photojournalist's life from his birth in Fort Scott, Kansas, to the pinnacle of his profession.

Ann Parr wasn't expecting a friendship when she wrote photographer Gordon Parks in 2003 requesting an interview — he was the subject of her masters thesis.

"Wrote to him on a Thursday," Parr recalls, "and Sunday afternoon he calls and he says, 'This is Gordon Parks. When are you coming?'"

From then until his death in 2006, Parr and Parks maintained a friendship that provided the impetus for Parr to write the new biography “Grit and Grace: Gordon Parks,” aimed at young adults.

Parks was a groundbreaking photographer, not only for challenging the color barrier of the photography world, but for changing photography itself. On fashion shoots, as the first Black photographer for LIFE Magazine, he would capture models in motion rather than standing still.

Parks' mother died when he was 14, but Parks says "he was driven by his mother's message of, 'Don't come home with any excuses. If a white boy can do it, you can too.'"

In addition to his photography, Parks also played the piano, composed a ballet in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and directed the first two "Shaft" films. He wrote a number of books on photography and one autobiography, "The Learning Tree," as well as directed the film version of it.

Parr says that Parks was "extremely successful" in all his endeavors. "There he was with all these accomplishments and no high school diploma."

Even though their friendship only lasted a few years, Parr came to admire much about Parks, and was particularly struck by his view on luck.

"There is no such thing as luck," she remembers Parks saying. "What you do is prepare yourself... and then when that opportunity walks by, you're going to recognize it and you grab it and run."

Stay Connected
When I host Up To Date each morning at 9, my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. Reach me at steve@kcur.org or on Twitter @stevekraske.
As senior producer of Up To Date, I want our listeners to hear familiar and new voices that shine light on the issues and challenges facing the myriad communities KCUR serves, and to expose our audiences to the wonderful and the creative in the Kansas City area. Just as important to me is an obligation to mentor the next generation of producers to ensure that the important conversations continue. Reach me at alexanderdk@kcur.org.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.