Black Houston photographers ponder the influence of pioneering Gordon Parks – Houston Chronicle

Gordon Parks (center) in the documentary ‘A Choice of Weapons.’ This image cannot be cropped or altered in any way without expressed written permission.
On Nov. 15, HBO airs “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks,” a documentary celebrating the life and career of the photographer/author/filmmaker/renaissance man, who passed away in 2006 at age 93. (He would have turned 119 on Nov. 30.)
The documentary, executive-produced by Alicia Keys and husband/producer Swizz Beatz, mostly explores his groundbreaking years at Life magazine, where he was the only staff photographer of color. He ended up becoming the magazine’s most powerful shooter, vividly capturing everything from Malcolm X and the inner workings of the Nation of Islam to segregation in the South to Muhammad Ali training in Miami Beach, Fla. Parks is the subject of a current exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “Gordon Parks and the Atmosphere of Crime.”
The doc also features interviews from various artists who have been influenced by Parks, including Baltimore photographer Devin Allen, whose photos of protests have appeared on the cover of Time, and filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee.
Several photographers of color here in Houston were inspired and influenced by Parks. Jason Woods, best known as DJ/ethnomusicologist Flash Gordon Parks, is also an experienced shutterbug. In 2005, he collaborated with poet/rapper Eric “EQuality” Blaylock for the poetry/photography book “The Beautiful Side of Ugly.” His photos were also recently showcased at a group exhibition at Community Artists’ Collective, spotlighting Third Ward artists. Says Woods, “Gordon Parks was a huge influence on me since high school, once I saw the book ‘Songs Of My People’ (for which Parks wrote the introduction) and read ‘The Learning Tree’ and watched the film.”
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“Tree,” Parks’ semi-autobiographical novel that he later made into a feature film (to be released next month on the Criterion Collection) also made a huge impression on Jay “Savvi” Fowler. While he’s mostly known as one-third of the hip-hop/soul trio The HUE, he’s been delving more into photography these days, compiling shots for his J. Savv Gallery Instagram page as well as for an upcoming coffee-table book. “Gordon Parks is the holy grail of image capture for me; however, my first introduction to him was through his written work as an author,” says Fowler. “I read ‘The Learning Tree’ when I was 14 and was forever imprinted by the visual he painted with his words.”
There are also those photographers who recently discovered Parks and his legacy. Until a few years ago, painter and photographer Trae Browne mostly knew Parks as the guy who directed the Blaxploitation classic “Shaft.”
‘A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by
Gordon Parks’
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Network: HBO and HBO Max
“I honestly never knew of Gordon Parks as a photographer until 2017, when I was working on a project to unearth archived photos of the Black Panther Party,” says Browne, whose work can be found on his Spiraling Artists website. Needless to say, Browne was floored by what Parks captured on camera.
“There are, of course, just a few prolific photographers from that era allowed into the chambers of the party,” he said. “He was one of them.”
Craig Lindsey is a Houston-based writer.
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