When your father is Gordon Parks, it is easy to understand your hesitancy to pick up the camera, settle behind a piano, or generally pursue any artistic career, given his accomplishments. But Toni Parks was undaunted and found ways to fuse her genetic background with her own unique qualities in the art world.
Born Nov. 4, 1940, in Minneapolis, Minn., Parks was still a baby when the nomadic family moved to Chicago. She was the elder daughter of Gordon and Sally Parks—her siblings Gordon Jr. and David would later make their own marks in film and civic affairs—and in the early ’50s the family lived in Paris.
One day, her father recalled in one of his several memoirs, she came home from school threatening not to return to class because a book described African-Americans as “darkies” and “piccaninnies.” Gordon Parks confronted the teacher and explained why his children would not be coming back to class. The teacher, “expressed shock and immediately banned the book from class.”
“It never occurred to me that Toni could express such rage,” Gordon Parks said, “and I was proud of her reaction when bigotry touched her universe.”
That defiance of racism and prejudice would typify Parks’ life, and her cultural and creative endeavors were often imbued with this sense of race pride and tolerance as she came of age in White Plains, N.Y. As a teenager, she intensified her piano lessons, studying with Vivian Dixon, the wife of the famed composer/conductor Dean Dixon. This period in her life was difficult, with her parents growing further and further apart. When they divorced in the late ’50s, she and her brothers began living with their father without their mother.
Over the years, Parks was totally committed to her music, preparing for recitals and writing engaging compositions. One recital at the Weill Hall in Manhattan was well-attended, although by then she had fully shifted her interest almost exclusively to the camera. “Toni deserted music for the camera,” her father noted in one of his books. By 1965, she had married Jean Luc Brouillaud, a Frenchman, and they had a son, Alain. The marriage ended in divorce and she later married Derek Parsons, an Englishman who pre-deceased her.
With her keen eye, in keeping with her DNA, Parks slowly acquired a reputation and standing as a respected photographer, so much so that she was soon a member of the prestigious Kamoinge, a collective of African-American photographers, and she was often in exhibitions with her colleagues. “In New York, there are so many types of people and so many things happening within one block,” Parks told a reporter. “Whatever I see that delights me, I take the photograph.” And clearly there was much in the world that delighted her and was delightfully documented by her.
After moving to England in her later years, Parks would often return to the states, particularly as her father aged, and these visits were opportunities for father and daughter to renew their bonds and collaborate in exhibits. One of her favorite sites was the Castle Gallery at the College of New Rochelle and later the Gordon Parks Gallery at the Bronx campus of the College of New Rochelle.