Given a Chance: An Ode to Gordon Parks

A Personal, Photo Essay
By Holly Tomlin, Photographer-Writer

As far back as I can remember, I was that annoying friend taking pictures of people at the most inappropriate times. I didn’t consider myself a photographer then. I didn’t even consider photography as part of my future. Until one day in 2004, while working and living in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, I raised my digital point-and-shoot to capture an image of women washing clothes in a river; however, a 10- or 11-year-old kid jumped right in the middle of the frame at the precise moment I pressed the shutter. Annoyed, I reviewed the playback. Staring back at me in the foreground was a perfect photo of the kid with his precocious grin and waving hands. In the background, was the blurred image of the women in the river. Without knowing it, this kid set my professional photography career in motion, although it took two years before I realized this interest had developed into a full-blown passion itching for its opportunity.


It was another few years before I fully appreciated the science of making photos versus taking pictures. I conducted countless practice sessions with any willing participant and dove into photography magazines, books, and workshops. Flipping through a photography book one afternoon, I saw the image that set the standard for me as a photographer: Fashion for Frank Murphy’s by Gordon Parks. The photograph was shot in Frank Murphy’s boutique in St Paul, Minnesota in 1940. In his autobiography, A Choice of Weapons, Gordon Parks (1965) explains his first time behind a camera. Upon developing the images, he was distraught to find that all but one image had been double exposed. Gordon Parks very quickly rectified his mistake by enlarging the only surviving image and confessed his mistake to Mrs. Murphy (who gave him the job). Mrs. Murphy liked the image so much that she displayed it as advertisement in the store window and gave Parks the opportunity to redo the photo shoot. I learned two things from Parks’ experience: 1) sometimes it is possible to get a second chance; however, 2) a stellar showing the first time helps.

Since my own breakout photograph, I have been invited to shoot various events, including red carpets and runway shows during New York Fashion Week, and I have had the pleasure of shooting aspiring actors’ and models’ portfolios. Recently I photographed a young, fun, spunky, extraordinarily talented and beautiful aspiring model and all-around entertainer. When she walked into my studio wearing a designer couture skirt, I instantly knew that I wanted to replicate Parks’ iconic first image. However, it wouldn’t be an exact replica; after all, I had to make it my own. The instant I pressed the shutter, I knew I’d successfully reproduced the symmetry and elegance that was my inspiration.

Trunk - Ode to Gordon Parks Series

What inspired me most about the model was her authentically unique and beautiful features. Unlike Parks’ model, my model is black, of Jamaican decent, with long flowing dreadlocs (henceforth referred to as locs). We know that locs are not a new phenomenon – they stem from a universally respected cultural history associated with religious beliefs and rebellion against tyranny and oppression. Although the wearing of locs may have taken on different meanings for different people, locs remain a statement of rebellion often tailored to individual choices of expression. Locs have made their way into the fashion vault such that celebrities and athletes of different races wear locs; however, it remains to be seen whether the fashion industry will be as receptive of models with loc’d hair.

Emani Hears


Despite the world-wide success of legends such as Beverly Johnson, Iman, Naomi Campbell, and the mogul, Tyra Banks, black models continue to struggle in the fashion industry. Let’s face it. Our hair, black hair, is always a hot button topic even (and maybe especially) amongst ourselves. Sometimes I feel it’s because people don’t understand its versatility, adaptability, and unique beauty, which is why I was excited to shoot this particular model. At a very young age she made the conscious choice to loc her hair. On her own, she continues to nurture and grow them such that her locs fall down her back and rests lovingly just above her bottom. She wears them straight or curls them. She’s able to tie them in a bun or wear them loosely in pony tails. Her locs were as much a part of the shoot as the designer garments she modeled. To honor the original Parks image, and in order to prove the point that locs can be just as versatile as the model who chooses to adorn them, I knew I had to shoot the model right the first time if I’m ever to be taken seriously as a photographer.

Trunk - Ode to Gordon Parks Series

Aside from replicating Parks’ image, I asked my model to run down the street in a wedding dress, strike poses under a bridge with the faint smell of urine in the air, spin in heels, punch a wall, smile, don’t smile, smile with her eyes, furrow her brow, squat, stand, contort… all the things models are asked to do to get the shot! We grabbed that proverbial bull by his proverbial horns. We not only replicated Parks’ image, but I’m pretty certain I borrowed some ideas from other icons as well… with a twist. The most important twist was the model herself, or, at least, that’s how the industry will likely view her: she’s beautiful and, yes, she can model and has locs. Locs that curl, flow, and bounce. Will her locs prevent her from getting the chance to showcase her full capabilities? Only time will tell.

Emani Hears

Like Gordon Parks and the countless and oftentimes nameless photographers who choose to push through glass to make powerful images, I also want to make images that inspire women to think and aspire beyond standards of beauty and style. Gordon Parks broke many rules and barriers during his first shoot and throughout his career. Today, the digital age practically dares us to dance with rebellion and redefine who we are as women and symbols of power, strength, and beauty. Given the chance, we can take our own unique brand and make the fractional seconds of a shutter click last lifetimes and, just maybe, change the standard once again… or create our own.

Credits: Photographs (c) Holly Tomlin Photography; Model: Emani Hears, Designs: Sofistafunk, the Skirt Company; Makeup: Hawa Abdul and Aryssa Arneaud

Bio: Holly Tomlin is a photographer-writer currently living in New York. You can follow her work on Instagram and Twitter
Portfolio: is a cutting-edge online magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. The site offers a platform for young adult perspectives, profiles inspirational visionaries and artists, and serves as an online community for change agents who are like-minded. Founded in 2011 by Rahiel Tesfamariam, Urban Cusp highlights voices, ideas and images not commonly found within mainstream media.

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