Gordon Parks is a photojournalist, art photographer, author, composer and director best known for his groundbreaking films The Learning Tree and the original Shaft. A 30-year retrospective of his photography, “Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks,” is currently showing at the California African-American Museum through December 30. On November 30, the day that Parks turns 88, HBO will premiere a documentary about the artist entitled Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks.
L.A. Weekly: You’re a real Renaissance guy . . .
Gordon Parks: I don’t know how to spell Renaissance!
Weekly: You let me worry about how to spell it. You’ve done it all — written, taken photographs, composed music, made movies and done everything pretty well, to say the least. What’s been your favorite mode of expression?
Parks: I’m enjoying them all. But if I had my druthers — and this will probably surprise a lot of people — I’d only do two things, compose music and write poetry. You don’t make a lot of money writing poetry. But [music and poetry] are self-sustaining, and they make you most honest with yourself.
Weekly: As a photographer you’ve chronicled haute couture in Paris, street life in impoverished places such as Harlem and Brazil, and many things in between. What kinds of images have moved you most?
Parks: Well, it’s very obvious in my work that I pick up my camera to let it speak for people who can’t speak for themselves. Most people would buy a camera for a family vacation or something like that. I didn’t have the leisure time to photograph such things — rocks, flowers, still lifes, things of that nature — but I always create a backdrop that the good Lord didn’t create for me. And photography, poetry, film, music is all interlaced for me. I’m just very grateful that it’s all come together for me in my life.
Weekly: You are a pioneer of black filmmaking, and black film of a certain caliber. How would you characterize the genre now?
Parks: I’m no authority on black film. But I hoped that having been a black director in Hollywood I could open doors for other black filmmakers. Obviously those doors have been opened. But I would also hope these filmmakers don’t accept the limits of the term “black film.” If they get the chance to do a film with a Shakespearean backdrop, or in Dostoevski’s Russia, or whatever, they should be capable of doing that — if you limit yourself, the outside world is going to limit you, too. I like to always have a little Shakespeare in my pocket. Filmmakers shouldn’t hold themselves only to black, though they should certainly know where they’re coming from. If you don’t know where you’re coming from, you don’t quite know where you’re going.
Weekly: How do you feel about Shaft being connected in most people’s minds to the whole blaxploitation trend that followed? I have to say that I always make it clear to people that I distinguish between Shaft and other, less thoughtful films of that era.
Parks: I loathe that connection. Shaft was not a black exploitation film. Who was exploiting whom? Black people were behind the camera for the first time. Black people were starring, making money. They were happy to be there. Where does the exploitation come in? That crept in later. After the success of Shaft, the studios jumped in right away and started throwing out black films, you know, and made a lot of money. They still do. I don’t blame them. I don’t want to be negative about this, but I wanted to make something that was worthwhile . . . Richard [Roundtree] had soul.
One of my very good friends was Duke Ellington. I loved him, and I still love him. But I also listened to Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich. I had to steep myself in all the composers to come out with something that would satisfy me. I had to include them all. Ellington used to say, “I don’t write jazz, I write music.” He taught me to listen to other people. Same goes for literature and film. You have to open yourself up to the rest of the world. Otherwise you are rightly criticized for your shortcomings.