The Digital Journalist
Gordon Parks:
A Picture Editor's Personal Remembrance
April 2006

by Barbara Baker Burrows

He sits at his piano, fingers moving effortlessly over its keys, and as smoke curls from his pipe, there is a sense of tranquility, as if nothing else exists in the softness of the night. It's very late, and the floodlights that illuminate the protected ruins of an abandoned hospital across the East River cast their glow through the long living room windows. Atop the piano and along stretches of windowsill, neatly placed side by side in their frames, are the cherished faces of loved ones who have graced his life. It's easy to get lost in reverie while his peaceful music filters through the air.

From Manhattan, NYC to Manhattan, Kansas -- Under a hot August sky in 1979, Gordon Parks strolls through the tallgrass prairie of the Konza Nature Preserve outside Manhattan, Kan. -- a world away from his home in New York City, yet not far from his birthplace of Fort Scott, Kan., where he was buried on March 16, 2006.

© Dave Williams / The Wichita Eagle
Around the room, there is plentiful evidence of an unabridged life. At first glance, it might not be apparent that there is orderliness to it all. Scattered in piles and lined along walls are hundreds of books, all meaningful, many by friends. Photographs hang or sit everywhere. A large, crowded table offers a sampling of his awards; another groans under his honors: keys to cities, honorary degrees, more books and photographs.

Gordon had decades of accomplishment, but he was not finished. How did he even find the time to leave us?

His 89th birthday party, thrown in their apartment by Midge and Ham Richardson, two of his closest friends, was filled with music and champagne, two ex-wives, and family and friends who cut across a lifetime.

It's worth noting that this last-mentioned group is so sprawling, that to list a few names risks offense to those who - but for space - should rightfully be included here. To write and to omit Gordon Jr. - whose death in a 1979 plane crash in Africa came long after his father could quite reasonably have expected to be done with life's hardships - seems wrong. How to write about Gordon and not include his wives, Sally, Liz and Gene, and his children, Toni, David and Leslie? The grandchildren? This is about Gordon, and they are Gordon.

But that night when he returned home, it was with a touch of melancholy. His next birthday would be his 90th, and he had so much still to do. That night, he started to write another book.

Writer, photographer, composer, filmmaker - Gordon Parks' accomplishments have been extensively chronicled. So too, his early life: Cattle herder, football semipro, whorehouse piano-player, railroad porter. And Gordon has told his own story - in words and in pictures, moving and still, photographed and painted, and in music. He's also answered the repeated question: "How did you do it?"

"I had some kind of innate capability to turn the violence and bitterness inside me into work. Maybe that's the reason I've done so many things."

Above all, he would credit his mother: "I owe her everything."

Momma's most relentless warning stuck like claws.
"Son, don't ever come home blaming your skin's blackness
for tumbling you downward.
If a white boy can do something worth doing,
remember, you can do it too. When the time comes
just get out there and do it - or forget to come home."

[from his poem: Momma]

In reality, Gordon left home when he was 15, very shortly after Momma died. And, while he may have credited her for "everything," in the frequently retellings of the stories of his life, he was sure to share the credit.

Gordon Parks, Barbara Baker Burrows (LIFE picture editor), Philip Kunhardt (author, & former LIFE editor), and Johanna Fiore (photographer & assistant to Gordon Parks), New York 2004

Katharine Kunhardt, Courtesy of Barbara Baker Burrows
Stillborn, the youngest of 15 children, he would often tell of the attending white physician who had unhesitatingly pressed his lips tightly against baby Gordon's mouth and, when that failed to breathe life into him, had plunged him into ice cold water. That was 1912 and the doctor's name was Gordon. I've often wondered whether that kind and courageous man ever had the chance to realize what he had given to the rest of us.

Years later, after Gordon had decided that he should be a photographer, and perhaps a fashion photographer, it was the wife of a Minneapolis department store owner he would credit for giving him a chance and, when that didn't quite work out because all but one of the shots were double-exposed, for standing by him.

There was Carl Mydans, whom he had met at the Farm Security Administration. Carl encouraged an unconfident Gordon to write - all of seven triple-spaced pages that became "The Learning Tree" - and then accompanied him to lunch with Harper & Row's Evan Thomas - just to be sure that Gordon didn't take the first amount offered. It was Carl's belief in him that Gordon credited for helping to change his life.

Ultimately, he credited photography and LIFE: "Whatever I do today is going to be something that I like. Whether it's writing a poem, writing a book, preparing for a film, writing music - whatever, I know it's something I like and - that photography made it all possible, you know. Without photography I possibly couldn't have done all these things. And in the end it goes back to LIFE magazine, you know, taking me in that day. Saying, okay, here's $500 to go out and do a gang story."

There were many others to whom Gordon did not hesitate to acknowledge a debt. Some were without names: The St. Paul trolley conductor who understood a cold, homeless, black kid, on his 17th birthday, seconds away from turning to crime. Others had big names: Marva Louis, Mrs. Joe, who introduced him to Chicago. Roy Stryker. John Cassavetes. Warner Seven Arts's Kenny Hyman gave Gordon the opportunity to be the first black director for a major studio, and then successively seduced him into taking on the roles of screenwriter, composer and producer for the same film.

There must have been something in him that they all saw. Clearly there was talent, but that emerged over time. Of course, the answer is: They saw the man.

He was charismatic, urbane, and full of humor, persevering, and full of a sense of responsibility. He was extraordinarily generous with his time. He may have mumbled and sometimes spoke in a voice so soft that people had to strain to listen, but listen they did. He was the best-dressed man in the room.

As Peter Kunhardt eulogized at Gordon's Manhattan funeral: "Men - loved him. Women - really loved him." And everyone in the Riverside Church knew it.

LIFE's managing editor, Ralph Graves, used to say that because we worked so intensely and for such long hours at the magazine, we were often closer to each other than we were to our own families. And he was right, except that sometimes we were actually members of the same family. Ralph's wife, Eleanor, was an editor at the magazine. And, in the interest of full disclosure, not only did I know Gordon for some 40 years, he was a friend of my in-laws, both of whom worked for LIFE, and my daughter's godfather. Just because it is trite to say it does not make it any less true to call ourselves a family. Gordon was an integral part of that family, and of the trust and loyalty that were its watchwords.

For the most part, LIFE was an objective observer, but there were times when there was surely no harm in revealing a particular sympathy. It seems that many of these stories were Gordon's. Beginning with his first LIFE essay on the gangs of Harlem, it was clear that he earned the trust of his subjects. Having chosen Red Jackson to be the young focus of his story, Gordon rode around with the gang for several days without taking a picture. Finally, Red asked him when he was going to bring a camera. The result: 15 pages in the November 1, 1948 issue.

"Stromboli" was a very different assignment. Gordon had been invited by Ingrid Bergman to take some pictures during the problematic filming of Roberto Rossellini's movie on the island of Stromboli. Ingrid felt that it needed pictorial help and approached Roberto with the idea of having Gordon stay and work on the movie. As Gordon suspected, the idea wasn't quite so appealing to Roberto. The filming had become more and more difficult, and Ingrid and Roberto -- attention to their developing relationship rivaling anything in our modern celebrity-obsessed world -- were haunted by a press hoping to catch an unguarded moment. It was something Gordon had thought about too. The moment came at the end of a day's shooting after the crew had gone home. Gordon was the only person there to witness an embrace. He pointed his camera, hesitated, and put it back in its bag, quite unaware that Ingrid had seen him. Soon he was spending private time with the couple, and he had his photographs.

As Gordon explained it: "I put myself in other people’s places. If I know that I wouldn't want to be photographed in a certain condition, I don't do it. I've sacrificed some good pictures; I found that I never lost anything by that."

Many editors would be appalled by the idea of the photographer who did not get the picture - by choice. But, time and again, at least at LIFE, we found that there was more to be gained through trust. Add to that Gordon's charm and it is not so difficult to imagine why a Danish military commander would accede to a request to "Please move your army back two steps for a better composition."

Years later, after a Muhammad Ali fight, Gordon was the only photographer invited back into the champ's dressing room. Ali seemed to have a broken jaw and it was swelling. No other newsmen were allowed to hang around, and as they talked Ali asked: "You going to take a picture of me with my jaw all swollen up like this?" Gordon replied: "I'd love to, but I just ran out of film."

It wasn't always that way. When Gordon found Flavio, the young Brazilian boy he used to personalize the awful conditions in Rio de Janeiro's favelas, he pulled no punches. Flavio was suffering from bronchial asthma and malnutrition and, Gordon suspected, tuberculosis. Flavio "knew" that he was dying, but despite his age his concern was for his siblings. With his story, Gordon informed the world. For Flavio the benefits were much more direct; with the contributions of LIFE's readers, he received two years of treatment at a hospital in Denver and a new home in Rio. But, so as not to make just one family rich, the money was used for the whole favela; it bought a drainage system and much more. A decade later the last of it helped to set up a medical clinic.

Gordon never stopped taking care of Flavio and his family; he felt that he had received as much from Flavio as he gave him. He would describe their time together as "some of the most tender moments of my life."

In 1968 Gordon's close friend, LIFE editor Phil Kunhardt, asked him to explain the rioting and discontent roiling so many of the nation's cities. The result, an essay on poverty in America, focused on the sad plight of the Fontenelle family and their life in a New York tenement. Even before the story was published, and letters and money poured in, at Gordon's urging, LIFE moved the Fontenelles out of the tenement and bought them a small house on Long Island. It was not to be the end of the story. Inebriated, Norman Fontenelle, the father, dropped a lighted cigarette onto a sofa, and in the fire that consumed the house, both Norman and young son Kenneth died. The family moved back to the New York they knew. Gordon questioned himself and his right to play God, but he too knew that he would continue to help.

Often, his subjects became a lifetime's obligation, and as he put it: "I wound up being an objective reporter with a subjective heart." Gordon was not a technical photographer. He just felt, and saw.

On behalf of LIFE, I had the pleasure of assigning Gordon to write a few pieces for our books. It was amusing to hear him ponder over whether or not he could do it. "How much time do I have, what should I talk about?"

"Well, you have at least a couple of weeks, more likely longer, and just say whatever is in your heart," would be the answer. Then, very late the same evening, or the next, when the offices were very still, there would be that familiar whir of the fax machine, followed by the pages slowly inching out. He didn't miss a beat; the minute he put the phone down he would already know what he wanted to say. Then, on a daily basis, we would be presented with his changes. His brilliant work was never quite acceptable to him until the day after we had closed - a true artist.

Early last November, shortly after Rosa Parks died, I couldn't shake a connection from my mind. Gordon knew her, but was it really possible that he had never photographed her? I was sure he hadn't, but it still seemed unbelievable. I was quite agitated about something that seemed unfinished. When he confirmed my fear, the solution seemed natural: "Well, why don't you write a poem. I know you've already completed your poetry book, but you must do this. It's something you need to do." Detecting a slight hesitation, with no shame on my part, I suggested: "She's probably an unidentified relative of yours."

He smiled through the phone: "I'll try." He had written it by nightfall.

At home, Gordon's door was always unlocked, just slightly ajar, so that friends and family could come and go as they pleased. The sound of Rachmaninoff, Diana Krall or Yo-Yo Ma never seemed to tire. A peek before entering would provide a glimpse of him softly shuffling back and forth in his favorite slippers, dark sweatshirt, baseball cap turned backwards and, until recently, the pipe that perpetually hung from his mouth. Making his way to the dining room table, his head is swimming with a multitude of ideas and he must write them down - an additional thought for a new book, a fresh composition, or another heartfelt poem to illuminate a recent world crisis. The greeting of "Hello Darhlin'," an almost inaudible "Haw Haw," then a gentle kiss on the cheek, warmed a visitor with the aroma of his familiar after-shave. The smell of its sweetness still lingers.

We often sat up until the wee hours of the morning just quietly talking about family, friends and the general state of the world. Very early one evening, I decided to pop in just for a quick fix of a cheery greeting and a hug. I had promised my husband, Russell, that at long last I would be home early.

"Oh, sit down for a minute," said Gordon, "Why don't I prepare some dinner?"

I explained I had made a commitment at home, but Gordon insisted on whipping up his renowned improvised soup, accompanied by his equally famed pasta - both relied on whatever he had handy. Oh, well. With disarming ease, we had already made short work of one of those really huge bottles of wine that are usually reserved for display purposes only. After the meal and more wine, I began to worry about calling home. In my hazy state, I thought it must be at least 10:00 p.m. and I needed to tell Russell not to wait for dinner. That moment of clarity was soon forgotten. As we were about to lick the tip of the bottle for any previously undetected droplets, we were suddenly horrified out of our stupor. A blazing fire appeared out of nowhere across the East River. With shrieks of astonishment, we jumped up and ran to the window trying to figure out where on earth it was coming from. In what seemed to be the darkness of night, the entire sky was a startlingly bright orange. Straining to figure it all out, it was slowly sinking in that this was the color of sunrise. As I raced towards the door, Gordon laughed: "Why darhlin', I thought you were going to spend the night."

When my daughter, Sarah, was very little, she saw a picture of Gordon sporting a trench coat in a GAP ad. I remember Gordon's amusement when he heard that she had screamed with delight, "Look, look, Uncle Gordon is famous!" Now she was older, and it was her high school graduation. Gordon was to be the speaker. He was always quite comfortable with a college commencement address or speaking in a great hall in front of a distinguished audience, but claimed uncertainty in his ability to offer the expected lesson to these lovely young teenage girls. It seemed that it was with almost a wink that he asked, "What should I say to them?"

"Just tell them about your life, your tragedies and triumphs. You will surely inspire them." And, as usual, he did.

Turning 90 didn't change him much; he still worked, still made himself available to all. On a particularly memorable day, Gordon, Johanna Fiore, his close friend and personal assistant for 18 years, and I drove out to Chappaqua, N.Y., to spend the day with Phil Kunhardt, his wife Katharine and two of their sons, Peter and Philip. There was a lot of laughter and irreverence, just as there had always been. It was to be the last good visit between two dear lifelong friends, both remarkable, both of whom knew that their time coincidentally was drawing to a close. It was Peter who delivered those lines quoted earlier at Gordon's funeral; less than two weeks later he would be eulogizing his own father. We have lost another member of the family.

On an afternoon not long ago, I stopped by Gordon's and as I walked through the door, he asked me to sit down to read a poem he had written. It was about him, about nearing the end of life. I didn't relish the idea of reading it in front of him, fearful of any weakness he might perceive. From the corner of my eye, I made sure that he was occupied elsewhere, so no need to suppress emotion. As I finished reading, I sensed a gentle presence over my shoulder, and looked up to Gordon's broad grin. He had watched every facial movement from beginning to end. Evidently, he had already received the same response from Johanna. There was a merciful wave of his hand as if to brush them away: "No need for tears, darhlin'," but we didn't let him down.

He knew, of course, that he could not deny life's end, but he had so much still to give. He would choose to go back to Kansas, to rest in that once-segregated cemetery next to Momma and Poppa - "bathing in the warmth of their love."

Homeward to the prairie I come. The prairie is still in me, in my talk and manners. It puzzles me that I live so far away from our old clapboard house where, in oak tree shade, I used to sit and dream of what I wanted to become. I always return here weary, but to draw strength from this huge silence that surrounds me, knowing now that all I thought was dead here is still alive, that there is a lasting warmth here - even when the wind blows hard and cold.

© Barbara Baker Burrows

Barbara Baker Burrows is the picture editor at LIFE magazine, where she has worked for over 35 years. Previously, she has been a contributor to The Digital Journalist with articles on photography legends Alfred Eisenstaedt and David Douglas Duncan.