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Gordon Parks 1912-2006

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'Shaft' Director Gordon Parks 1912-2006

by Dennis McLellan

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Gordon Parks

NEW YORK, New York - Gordon Parks, who became the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine in the late 1940s and broke more ground in Hollywood two decades later as the first black person to direct a major studio film, "The Learning Tree," followed by the landmark black private eye movie "Shaft," has died. He was 93.

Parks, who also carved out niches as a novelist, memoirist, poet and composer, died Tuesday, March 7, in New York, his nephew, Charles Parks, told The Times. Parks had been in failing health for some time, but the cause of death was not reported.

Although his films widened his fame, it was as a photographer and social documentarian that Parks first made his mark as an artist and achieved his greatest acclaim. From a clapboard house in a segregated town in rural Kansas to a high-rise Manhattan apartment with a panoramic view of the East River, he covered a lot of ground on his way to becoming one of America's foremost photojournalists.

Parks, who once played piano in a Minneapolis brothel and worked as a waiter on a railroad dining car, was a self-taught photographer. He was equally at ease documenting a chain gang in Alabama and photographing Manhattan socialite Gloria Vanderbilt or a Paris fashion model.

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Gordon Parks

As a staff photographer at Life for more than two decades, Parks shot more than 300 major assignments, including acclaimed photo essays on segregation in the Deep South (1956), the slums of Rio de Janeiro (1961) and the Black Muslims (1963).

He also shot intimate portraits of celebrities, ranging from Muhammad Ali to Barbra Streisand. But poverty and powerlessness were frequent themes in his work. His photo essay, "Freedom's Fearful Foe: Poverty," in a 1961 issue of Life examined the Da Silvas, an impoverished Rio de Janeiro couple whose young son, Flavio, was dying of bronchial asthma and malnutrition.

The public responded with donations and offers of adoption, and the Children's Asthma Research Institute in Denver offered free treatment. Parks, who kept in touch with his young subject, wrote and directed a 1964 documentary on the boy as well as writing the award-winning 1978 biography, "Flavio."

In documenting the Black Power movement in the 1960s, Parks gained unprecedented access to the Black Muslims and the Black Panthers and produced memorable photo essays on both organizations.

"The black militants wanted their voices heard by a lot of people, and Life wanted to get their stories," Parks told Britain's Guardian newspaper in 1993. "Life tried without me at first

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