The Digital Journalist
A Life Worth Living: Gordon Parks

by Eli Reed

April 2006

Gordon Parks passed from this earth into the next life. I am sure he is working and exploring the mysteries of that next place inside the void. I would also expect to feel the start of a brimful of life force at the moment of his arrival into that void. Words at a certain point often become redundant when great men such as he leave the room. And then, sometimes, the words do strike close.

"As I told him, be proud you are the seed of such a great man and photographer. To go forward and continue in greatness is the best gift you can give to his memory. The gift that was Gordon is in you." These words by master photographic printer Teresa Engle were sent by e-mail to young and talented Afro-American photographer Russell Frederick upon hearing of the death of Mr. Parks.

So it goes.

I first met Gordon Parks at the 1983 National Association of Black Journalists convention in New Orleans where he was speaking. I admired the man and creative power of his photography, words, art, music, and motion-picture films. I couldn't quite believe how he made it all seem so effortless. I believed that was impossible.

Dapper as ever, Gordon Parks rests in a London hotel room following a transatlantic flight to England, 1994.
He was in London to be a presenter at the British Film Awards and for various events throughout the U.K. honoring his work in photography, writing, film, music and art.

Eli Reed/Magnum Photos
I went to New Orleans specifically to see Mr. Parks. I hoped to meet and give him a copy of a San Francisco Examiner 52-page special report on Central America titled, "The Tortured Land." I felt it was the best work I had done up to that point in my career and I tried in my own way to thank him for being such a wonderful inspiration to me.

I introduced myself to him after his presentation, probably spitting out too rapidly how much I admired him. I then left immediately to continue on to N.Y.C. for a meeting with Magnum Editorial Director Rose Marie Wheeler regarding my working with Magnum as a nominee while still working as a staff photographer at the San Francisco Examiner. I ended up going directly to Beirut, Lebanon, resigning from the Examiner by cable phone as I passed through Heathrow Airport. A part of me has always believed I indirectly received my marching orders from my brief talk with Gordon.

I first saw his photographic work in LIFE magazine at a point when I barely understood how powerful the medium could be. I saw but I hadn't yet understood the breadth of the powerful photography in the hands and eyes of those who could see beyond the veil. Gordon Parks was a visionary of life and love. He carried a splendid tenderness for life that dealt with the ongoing existence of that very thing, life.

I had to wrap my head around the fact that this one 'dude' directed the movies "The Learning Tree" and "Shaft." He walked down the streets of my America. It was an America that black people inhabited for the most part with shallow representation concerning the fact of their existence as human beings. Walk quietly, pretend everything was fine, accept your place for what it was, and don't be rash enough to want more. Gordon did not accept that. He walked the walk until he didn't have to do the talk and when he did talk, it wasn't talk - it was music direct to the heart muscle that shapes the soul. When it was time to ask someone to write the introduction for my "Black in America" book, he was the one I wanted. He understood everything I was trying to say and he understood the why of it.

Parks was everywhere. From the upper-class heights of New York City, to showing the face of his people in Harlem, to a world of dark slums in Brazil, and moving on to Hollywood lives in Europe. He was everyman as he relentlessly placed the vision burned into his soul onto photographic print paper, the music in his head onto musical note paper, poems from his life hammered into typing paper, and his graceful slide into movie films. He carried the weight and progressively took on more and more and became stronger in the creative sense. He made us look at the horror, and at the beauty, and we were better for it.

In 1994, Gordon flew to London to act as a presenter at the British Film Award ceremonies and to be honored for his lifework at various venues throughout the U.K. His daughter Toni asked me to help surprise her father by coming to London (I was in Paris) to document his visit with video. I remember filming him in his beautifully-fitted suit as he exited the airport taxi upon arrival at his hotel and thinking to myself, no one should be able to look that good at 7:00 in the morning after a transatlantic flight. Only his alter ego, John Shaft, could look that good.

Because of his early arrival, the hotel management set up a temporary room for him to relax in as they prepared his suite. While waiting, he opened one of his bags and revealed to me the 'dummy' of a book that he was working on. He nonchalantly passed the book over to me and I opened to the first page. My jaw dropped. Off the Xeroxed pages came beautifully surreal and sensual images with poetry to get lost in; at the same time, they made me feel lost and old before my time. At this moment, that 1994 moment still feels like yesterday and reminds me what it means to be an artist. Work without complaint. You can't talk a good picture and forget about talking a great picture.

I have always envied his daughter Toni and his son David, both of whom I have known over the years. Both are talented and fortunate recipients of that splendid life force that was once Gordon Parks. There has been talk from some of Gordon being a mentor to me. It was never true. My mentor has been photographer and artist Donald Greenhaus from the day I first met him in 1969.

Mr. Parks was a mentor to all who were fortunate to know him, particularly for black folk. I will treasure the quiet moments and words of wisdom that he passed on to me over the years at various points. He always said in just a few words what was necessary and always at a time when I seemed to need to hear them. Of course, perhaps I only heard what I wanted to hear but it still sounded great coming from his lips.

© Eli Reed

Eli Reed, currently a Clinical Professor of Photojournalism at the University of Texas at Austin, has been associated with the elite legendary photo agency, Magnum Photos, since 1983. The award-winning photographer has covered world news events for various national and international publications since 1982. He has photographed over 25 feature, documentary and cable network films, and authored two books: "Beirut, City of Regrets," and "Black in America," with his photographs, text and poetry - and an introduction written by Gordon Parks.

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