Gordon Parks was the first African American photographer hired by LIFE magazine, when it was in its heyday as the nation’s most influential publication. He joined the staff after a decade photographing in Chicago, Washington, and New York, mostly portraits and social documentary. His career expanded to music, film, and books until his death in 2006. Trivia question: Do you know who directed the mega-hit movie Shaft?
An exhibit at the National Gallery focuses on Parks’s career in the 1940s. Since I have been researching photographers who worked with him, most notably Esther Bubley, I was greatly looking forward to the exhibit and a lecture by its curator, Philip Brookman.
Parks was born in 1912 in Kansas. His mother wanted him out of the segregated Kansas schools to graduate high school. After she died in 1928, he went live with a sister in St. Paul, MN. He didn’t finish school but took a string of jobs, including as a waiter on the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1937, during a layover in Seattle, he bought a camera in a pawn shop, drawn to it without initially knowing how to use it. He learned how, and he began taking portraits, setting up a studio in his house.
The exhibition begins with images from there and Chicago, where he moved to commit to life as a photographer—a risk with a family during the Depression. He was welcomed into the vibrant community of the South Side Community Art Center. He collaborated with artists and writers, learning, creating, and exploring the neighborhood with his camera. His portraits of poet Langston Hughes are a prominent part of the exhibit; very few of his documentary-style images exist but there one of a young boy on a cold winter day, tucked into a corner of a building, watching Parks.
He came to Washington through a fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation. The foundation supported African American scholars and artists to gain experience in their chosen fields. During the lecture, curator Brookman displayed a copy of the letter that made the necessary connection and described what Parks would do in Washington with Roy Stryker, the head of the photography section of the Farm Security Administration, or the FSA.
He grew his talents as a photographer, gaining technical expertise, artistry, and political consciousness. He had experienced prejudice throughout his life, but Washington’s strict segregation was new and not pleasant. As he did with all his photographers, Stryker urged Parks to channel what he saw into stories—series of photographs rather than one-off images. He described taking this advice when he spoke with and photographed Ella Watson, the office’s night-time custodian. He took pictures of her at work and at home, and learned about her life and limited possibilities.
Watson’s portrait welcomes visitors to the exhibit, and Brookman described it as one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century. Later entitled American Gothic, it was not published at the time.
In 1942, Stryker’s FSA photo unit became subsumed under the Office of War Information, and its mission to unify the country to support the war effort. Photographs from this time include images from the Frederick Douglass Housing Project in Washington and training of the Tuskagee Airmen (although the military did not allow him to accompany the men to Europe—they would not allow images of African American men in combat).
Stryker became frustrated with the OWI strictures and accepted a job with Standard Oil of New Jersey to create a photographic archive. The purpose was to bolster the company’s public image. Besides a way out of Washington, Stryker viewed the assignment similarly to the FSA/OWI work—take their theme (in this case, to show how the role of petroleum in people’s lives) to amass images at a particular place and time. Stryker hired Parks in his Standard Oil position but urged his photographers to also seek other work.
Parks moved to New York. The exhibit features some of his Standard Oil images, most notably the workers in a plant in Pittsburgh and the oil fields of Canada, as well as the beginnings of his work with Life, Ebony, and other publications.
Earlier this year, I read one of Parks’ memoirs in which he described his change in lifestyle as a Life employee. He had a secure salary, a generous expense account, and the stature of the magazine behind him when he went out on assignment.
But as this exhibit shows, his early work showed the eye and conscience of a great artist and chronicler. It runs through February in Washington, then moves on to Cleveland, Fort Worth, and Andover, Massachusetts.