The Vogue Photographer Who Took Black America As Seriously As He Took Fashion

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Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1949, by Gordon Parks.Photo: The Gordon Parks Foundation

Photographer Gordon Parks was 14 when, in 1925, he left his home in rural Kansas. Later, while waiting tables in a railroad dining car, he saw photos of migrant workers in a magazine and decided to become a photographer. He bought his first camera from a pawn shop and started his career as a society portraitist in Chicago. He became the first African-American photographer for Vogue and Life magazines.

Initially hired to shoot a series of evening gowns for Vogue, Parks developed a signature style in his images for the magazine: He photographed models in motion rather than in still poses, pioneering a new approach to fashion shoots. At the same time, Parks captured poverty and injustice in America. During his initial Vogue shoots, he also produced the photographic essay “Harlem Gang Leader.” After it was published to much acclaim in Life in 1948, the magazine also hired Parks. He spent the next two decades working for Life, covering a wide range of subjects — fashion and Broadway, police brutality and the civil-rights movement, and everyday lives of black families in the Jim Crow South.

The new book Gordon Parks: I Am You: Selected Works 1934–1978 features groundbreaking portraits taken throughout his career at Vogue and Life. Click ahead for a preview.