On Gordon Parks 100th Birthday, A Note From A Family Friend

Gordon Parks at  The Gordon Parks Independent Film Awards For African American Filmmakers at the Directors Guild of America T
Gordon Parks at The Gordon Parks Independent Film Awards For African American Filmmakers at the Directors Guild of America Theater in New York City on October 3, 2001. photo by Gabe Palacio/ImageDirect

Today would be Gordon Parks' one hundredth birthday.

Gordon Parks was a friend to my family for more than forty years. He was a colleague of my grandfather, Phil Kunhardt, at LIFE Magazine, and a glowing presence in my home as a child. I remember his jokes, his pipe, his stylish clothes -- and the way he could relate to anyone, young and old.

His genius, I think, was based on a respect and trust he brought to the people and issues that he photographed. He spent much time with his subjects, sometimes even living with them -- often in the harshest conditions. "I have to live with a family," he said, "so they accept me as a person, as a big brother or uncle -- so that they have confidence in me and I have love for them. And it is a lasting love."

My grandfather spoke often about what made Gordon's work so unique and what set him apart from the work of other photographers at LIFE magazine. He was amazed that a largely untrained, self-educated image-maker was able to outpace so many other talented giants of the medium. His secret, my grandfather felt, was that unlike many of his peers, Parks had ambitions beyond the magazine -- he believed he was "working on a larger canvas." He had a vision of what he was after with his camera: to tell his children, his grandchildren -- everybody's children -- of the world he'd seen. In short, he wanted to make us better people.

Throughout his life -- as a child, as a young black man and as a photographer unafraid to broach difficult subjects and go where others feared -- Gordon endured, and witnessed, terrible things. Sometimes he'd stare into the distance and fall silent. But he never stopped working. Throughout his 93 years, Gordon continued to create, as a writer, musician and filmmaker.

The Gordon Parks Foundation was created upon his death in 2006. Like other artists' foundations, we support the creation of exhibitions and the publication of books that feature Gordon's work. And we encourage research into his life and art. Beyond that, though, we keep his example alive, primarily through the support of education for young artists, ones who yearn to create in the same modes and media that animated him in his lifetime: poetry, photography, music, and cinema. By doing this, we hope to help future generations express themselves through art, advancing what Gordon described as "the common search for a better life and a better world."