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Gordon Parks documented America: its violence, its beauty, its pride and its prejudice. During the mid-20th century, his fashion photography and celebrity commissions were tempered with reportage that exposed the nation to its injustices. Many of the themes that concerned him—racism, marginalization, poverty—remain as charged and complex today as they did then.

Some artists create with a sense of purpose that extends beyond making something beautiful. American photographer Gordon Parks is a consummate example. Over a nearly seven-decade career, he used his camera to document “all the things I dislike about America—poverty, racism, discrimination.” And he was consistent: consistently prolific, inspired and committed to fighting inequality. According to his daughter Leslie Parks, “He always wanted to show injustice. That’s all he knew, so that’s what he took photographs of.”

Most people know Parks for his firsts: first African-American man to work at Life magazine, first to write and direct a Hollywood film (The Learning Tree in 1969)—or for a single iconic photograph or film. Few are aware of the breadth of his creativity, that he was also a self-taught pianist, composer and author of memoirs, poetry, novels and plays. Fewer still appreciate how he brought to the American mainstream the truth—ugly and beautiful—of people rendered invisible because of

  • Words:
    Sala Elise Patterson
  • Photography:
    Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation

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  • Words:
    Sala Elise Patterson
  • Photography:
    Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation
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