Gordon Parks, who died yesterday at 93, created some of the defining images of the 20th century. He’s been aptly described as ”the Jackie Robinson of film,” the first African-American director of a major studio movie. That film was 1969’s The Learning Tree, based on his own autobiographical novel of growing up in rural poverty; Parks not only directed and wrote the film, he also produced it, photographed it, and composed the score. He followed it up with the landmark hit Shaft (1971), which helped launch the blaxploitation genre and spawned Isaac Hayes’ catchy, Oscar-winning theme song.
Yet Parks’ film career was just a brief interlude in a longer career as a photographer and writer. He wrote poems, novels, and several memoirs of his eventful life, which included a 20-year stint as one of Life magazine’s most renowned photojournalists. He spent many decades documenting in pictures all strata of American life, from fashion models to cleaning women (as in his most famous photograph, ”American Gothic”). A great retrospective of his lens work is online here.