Gordon Parks: Photojournalist of the Civil Rights Era (Resources for Artist Study)

This past spring, we visited an exhibit of photographs by Gordon Parks. Gordon Parks was an African-American photographer who became prominent in U.S. documentary photojournalism in the 1940s through 1970s, particularly in issues of civil rights, poverty and African-Americans. I was especially excited about learning more about Parks because his photos are so rich with history, and we are a history-loving family! Parks, a self-taught photographer who was born into poverty and segregation in rural Kansas, created many iconic photos during the civil rights era.

This artist study was one of my favorite experiences from our entire school year. I love studying an artist and then visiting their works in person. I actually went twice to the exhibit with two groups I organized: my son’s high school group and my daughter’s middle school group. During the second visit, we attended a talk by the curator of the exhibit. I loved hearing how she selected works from their collection to exhibit and her reasons for juxtaposing certain images, for the order and grouping of images along the walls, the parts of his life she wanted to highlight and compare.

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I had barely heard of Gordon Parks before this exhibit, but I had happened upon Carol Boston Weatherford’s picture book biography Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America in the new non-fiction many months before. So when the email newsletter came from the art museum, I recognized Parks’ name, and jumped at the chance to learn about a photographer and see his work in person.

In preparation for our visit, we read Weatherford’s picture book biography Gordon Parks and the pages about him in Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History by Vashti Harrison. We did some picture studies with Parks’ photos (accessed online). We also watched several YouTube videos about him. I checked out the two books our library owned by Gordon Parks (his memoir To Smile in Autumn plus The Making of an Argument about one of his photojournalism projects for Life Magazine). After our museum visits, my 12yo daughter became fascinated by his life and read most of his memoir plus The Making of an Argument and then wrote an essay about him. The exhibit itself offered a chance to talk about segregation, poverty, crime, the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Panthers, the relationship between photojournalist and subject, and many more topics.

Although we had studied the photographs online there was nothing like seeing them in person. You would think it wouldn’t make much of a difference for photographs, but it did. Printed from film under Parks’ supervision, the photos were stunning in their detail and beauty. I hope you get a chance to learn about Gordon Parks and see some of his photos in person, particularly if you are studying the Civil Rights Movement.



Here are links to all our favorite picture book read-alouds by subject:


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