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Gordon Parks:  The Artist and His Papers

Gordon Parks was a versatile and prolific artist who achieved success as a poet, novelist, composer, film director, preeminent documentary photojournalist and fashion photographer. The Gordon Parks Papers is comprised of more than 150 feet of correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, publication materials, books and memorabilia compiled and collected by Gordon Parks during his life.  The bulk of the material documents the last three decades of his life and career. The images in this digital exhibit give a preview of the treasures contained in the collection.  The Gordon Parks Papers will be formally opened to the public as part of the University’s fall 2012 celebration of the centennial of his birth.

 

Biographical essay of Gordon Parks

Books, articles and pamphlets from Gordon Parks' Personal Library



Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Annotated draft of page 2 from Gordon Parks’ seven page unpublished Life Magazine article, “Back to Fort Scott,” 1951.  Parks returned to his childhood home of Fort Scott, Kansas, in the early 1950s to write about his memories, both good and bad, for Life in an article titled, “Back to Fort Scott.”  To research the piece, he tracked down his eleven African American classmates from the racially segregated Plaza School they attended together from first to ninth grades before going on to the integrated high school.  Parks’ article was never published, as it was bumped by Life to make space for a piece about the firing of General MacArthur by President Truman on April 11, 1951.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Gordon Parks with his eleven Fort Scott classmates, the subjects of his never published Life Magazine article, “Back to Fort Scott,” posed outside on the street around a car; individuals are unidentified in the photograph, circa 1926-1928.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Postcard of the racially segregated Plaza School in Fort Scott that Gordon Parks attended, with students gathered around the building, date unknown.  The back of the postcard states that it was given to him in 1971 by a fan from Winfield, Kansas.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Annotated draft of page 33 from the second chapter of Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree, circa 1963.  The book is a semi-autobiographical novel about Parks’ childhood in Fort Scott.  It follows Newt Winger, an African American teenager in the fictional Kansas town of Cherokee Flats, in a coming of age tale that magnifies the discrimination, segregation, and racial violence African Americans faced in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Annotated draft of the front side of the last page of Gordon Parks’ memoir, A Choice of Weapons, circa 1964.  The memoir covers the difficult but momentous years of his life from 1928 when he left Fort Scott through 1944 when he worked as a photographer and correspondent for the Office of War Information.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Page from The Learning Tree scene drawing book by artist John Solie and used by Gordon Parks for the film based on his novel, circa 1968.  In 1969, after years of effort, Parks secured a film deal with Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, which allowed him to write the screenplay, direct, produce, and score the film, and, in doing so, Parks became the first African American to direct a major Hollywood film.  Parks used this opportunity to assemble a crew made up of mostly African Americans who also faced discrimination because of Hollywood’s hiring practices.  In 1989, the Library of Congress chose The Learning Tree for the first selection of twenty-five films to the National Film Registry, which seeks to preserve films that are culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Title page from Gordon Parks’ annotated Shaft shooting script by screenwriter John D. F. Black, January 13, 1971.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Page 8 from Gordon Parks’ annotated Shaft shooting script by screenwriter John D. F. Black, January 13, 1971.  Parks’ revision of the script to change a character’s “funky brown suit” to a “Funky Plaid coat” shows his continuing attention to the details of fashion to portray a certain persona, a talent which helped to make him a successful fashion photographer and magazine art director. 

Gordon Parks Personal Library, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

 

Page 3 from the debut issue of Circuit’s Smart Woman, November 1947.  While living in Chicago in the late 1940s, Gordon Parks worked as the art director for this magazine marketed to a female middle-class African American audience with sections on fashion, beauty, career, and home.  The magazine recognized Parks’ talent behind the lens, noting on the contributors’ page that his “…unusual fashion shots have attracted national attention.”  

Gordon Parks Personal Library, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Page 17 from the debut issue of Circuit’s Smart Woman, November 1947.  Parks shot fashion photography for the publication with a signature flair that became a hallmark of his career.  Within a year, in 1948, Parks joined Life Magazine as the first African American staff photographer where he continued to shoot fashion photography while also exposing Americans to contemporary issues on race and poverty as a photojournalist.

Gordon Parks Personal Library, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

“Xmas issue” of Circuit’s Smart Woman with Gordon Parks’ photograph of his first wife, Sally, featured on the cover, December 1947.  This issue featured his fashion photography on nine pages inside the magazine, including two photographs of Sally. 

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Postcard, front, from Malcolm X sent to Gordon and Elizabeth Parks, from Miami, Florida, January 18, 1964.  The front shows a chimpanzee sitting on a yellow chair outside wearing red shorts, red suspenders, t-shirt, and a baseball cap pursing his lips for the photographer.  Parks became close with Malcolm after interviewing him for a Life Magazine article on Black Muslims in 1963.  Malcolm asked Parks to become godfather to his daughter Quibilah, a responsibility he took very seriously.  Throughout 1964 Malcolm sent Parks postcards from his travels in the U.S. and abroad whose messages documented his evolving beliefs and prompted Parks to ask him for an interview.  They held their conversation on February 19, 1965, two days before Malcolm X was assassinated.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Postcard, back, from Malcolm X sent to Gordon and Elizabeth Parks, from Miami, Florida, January 18, 1964. The message on the back states: “Look what I found down here!  And he is less segregated than our people are.  His cage is open; but our people are still caged mentally.  Bro Malcolm X.”

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Receipt for payment on a piano bought by Sarah Parks, May 5, 1919.  The collection contains 58 receipts given to Sarah Parks for her payments on the family’s piano which she made from 1919 through 1925.  The receipts document her determination and conscientious recordkeeping to acquire an expensive musical instrument to provide her family with enrichment as well as entertainment.  Parks mentions playing this piano in his memoir, A Choice of Weapons.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Sally Parks (front seat, right) driving the Parks family (Gordon Parks, front seat, left; son David Parks, back seat, left; daughter Toni Parks, back seat, center; son Gordon Parks, Jr., back seat, right) down the Champs-Élysées in the convertible they brought to Paris from America while Parks was on assignment at the Paris bureau for Life Magazine.  The writing on the back of the photograph states: “The ‘Parks’ in Paris, France,” circa 1950, photographer unknown.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Gordon Parks in a contemplative pose with his camera around his neck, date and photographer unknown.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Annotated musical composition by Gordon Parks titled “Nocturne Concerto, Pg. I (Main Theme), 3rd Movement,” date unknown.  Parks received limited formal musical training as a child and devised a numerical system of music notation.  Once finished, he hired an arranger to complete the piece.  He mentions in A Choice of Weapons that he had forgotten how to read the standard system of musical notation which he had briefly studied as a child.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Fan letter from Madison Shelden, grade 5, after a tour of the Gordon Parks Collection at Mercy Health Center, Fort Scott, Kansas, 2004.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Gordon Parks looking at galley proofs from Arias in Silence, 1994, photographer unknown.

Gordon Parks Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries

Gordon Parks reading newspaper clippings, which he meticulously compiled, and other papers, September 1987, photographer unknown.

 


 

Images in this digital exhibit may be in the public domain or under copyright which is protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S. Code).  Images in the public domain are made available for use in research, instruction and private study.  Copyrighted materials may be used for research, instruction, and private study under the provisions of Fair Use, outlined in section 107 of copyright law.  Publication, commercial use, or reproduction of a copyrighted image that does not fall under the provisions of Fair Use or the accompanying data requires prior written permission from the copyright holder.  User assumes all responsibility for obtaining the necessary permission to publish (including in digital format) from the copyright holder.  If publishing this image in print, electronically or on a website, for research, instruction or private study, please use the citation "Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Wichita State University Libraries" and inform us of your use at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .  For other uses of materials, see Statement on Use and Reproductions, http://libraries.wichita.edu/ablah/index.php/aboutsc#use.

 

May 2012

Special Collections and University Archives
Wichita State University Libraries