I still don't know exactly who I am," Gordon Parks wrote in 1979. Anyone would have been confused. Photographer, filmmaker, novelist, memoirist, poet, composer--where to begin? He took fashion photos for Vogue in the '40s, became one of the world's best photojournalists at Life magazine--he was the first black photographer on staff--and was the first African-American to make a major feature film, 1969's "The Learning Tree," based on his own novel, for which he was producer, director, screenwriter and cinematographer. And he composed the soundtrack. His 1971 movie "Shaft" led to the urban realism of such filmmakers as Spike Lee and John Singleton. One writer called Parks "the Jackie Robinson of film." Or maybe Robinson was the Gordon Parks of baseball.
But if he'd done nothing else, Parks would be remembered for those photographic portraits. A magisterial Malcolm X. A brooding Langston Hughes. Perhaps above all, "American Gothic," taken in the early 1940s for the Farm Security Administration: a bespectacled black cleaning woman in front of an American flag, exuding weary dignity that seems about to turn into righteous anger. "I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty," he once reflected, "against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs." His masterly, widely popular work did much to right them.