Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

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Gordon Parks – “Camera Could be a Weapon”

I thought I’d write about a new exhibit of Gordon Parks’ early work. I should tell you up front that I knew his photography more by reputation than by spending time with his imagery. So, before I saw the show, the only Gordon Parks photograph that came to mind was this one.


“Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman”   all photos by Gordon Parks

I remembered it as a bitter statement about race, poverty and the American Dream. So, seeing it again as part of the exhibit, I wondered about its back story. Here’s what I discovered:

Mrs. Ella Watson Becomes an American Icon

The woman in the photograph, Ella Watson, cleaned offices at the Farm Security Administration, where Gordon Parks had recently arrived as an apprentice photographer. His dream was to be part of the FSA photographic team showing how the Great Depression had impacted the lives of Americans. One evening, he saw her cleaning an office down the hall and wanted to know her story.

Ella Watson was a high school grad and trained stenographer, she told Parks. But that work was only available to white people in Washington, D.C. So she cleaned offices.

“Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman Cleaning After Regular Working Hours”

You could say her experience was typical of many poor African Americans trying to survive in that segregated city. A lynch mob had killed her father, a gun shot ended her husband’s life and her daughter died after giving birth to her second child. So Ella Watson was left to raise her two grandchildren, asking neighbors to mind them while she worked at night.

“Grandchildren of Mrs. Ella Watson, Government Charwoman”

“Keep Working With Her”

After learning her story and having his own frequent encounters with racism in Washington, D.C., Parks made the iconic portrait. One account said he told Ella Watson to think about all the things she told him as he took her portrait.

Parks: “What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it.”

The photo of Ella Watson posed in front of the American flag did not get a good reception from Parks’ boss, Roy Stryker. Stryker felt it was too strident and buried it. (It would be published 20 years after the FSA closed, when Parks found the negative in the archives).

Instead, Stryker told Parks, “Keep working with her. Let’s see what happens.”

Parks continues the story: “I followed her for nearly a month–into her home, her church, and wherever she went. “You’re learning,” Stryker admitted when I laid the photographs out before him late one evening. “You’re showing you can involve yourself in other people.”

“Washington, D.C. Adopted daughter and two grandchildren with Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman”

A Winding Path to the FSA

Parks grew up with enormous challenges — poverty, racism, segregation — and had to drop out of high school. Son of a tenant farmer, he was on his own at 16 with just his wits and enormous talent to propel him forward. After seeing images of migrant workers in a magazine, he bought a camera and taught himself how to use it. He was 27 years old.

Gordon Parks self portrait



PARKS: “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”




Three years later he landed the apprenticeship at the FSA. You can find a short bio of his life and work here and here.

A new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. features his early work from 1940 – 1950. I thought I’d pick three photos from the exhibit to talk about his artistry as an image maker.

“Off on my Own”

“Off on my Own”

Parks shot this from a low perspective with the camera held close to the ground. Also, the man is backlit, giving him heightened definition. As the man walks away, the lighting and framing give him an almost heroic stature. As well, the silhouette of the man carries an air of mystery and perhaps the beginning of a journey.

If you think of this image in terms of dark and light – the black silhouette is echoed in the blackened doorway to the right. The diagonal of the shadow on the man’s right is in line with the angle of the dark wall to his left. The windows and distant tenement appear to glow as they give the impression the man is moving from darkness towards the light.

This image has a strong graphic quality too. Like architecture, each element is placed to echo or counterpoint the central focus on the man. He’s tightly framed by the walls and clothesline. He may be hemmed in by his surroundings, but he’s also moving away from them.

Finally, everything seems perfectly placed within the frame, yet the shot feels informal and the moment seemingly captured by chance. As I look at it closely, I see how all the elements work together to create this one perfect moment.

A Collaboration

I learned the photo was made in collaboration with Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man. It was part of a series they crafted together to illustrate an essay about Harlem, race and segregation. From the essay:

photo of Ralph Ellison by Gordon Parks


“Harlem is the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth… Not quite citizens and yet Americans, full of the tensions of modern man but regarded as primitives, Negro Americans are in desperate search for an identity.”


I didn’t know this when I selected the photo, but I can see those themes echoed there in the imagery.

Red Jackson Trapped

“Trapped in abandoned building by a rival gang on street, Red Jackson ponders his next move”

Parks’ image of Red Jackson is a strong character study. Red’s body language shows me he’s in trouble and the broken glass in the window tells all I need to know about his prospects. The darkness that surrounds him echoes his dilemma.

In this photograph, with its dramatic lighting and framing, it’s easy to see that Red Jackson feels stuck or trapped in this space. But looking at it more abstractly, I can also read it as an existential statement of how poverty and racism create barriers, keeping people stuck with little way forward. There’s a lot of humanity and empathy in the way Parks shows this man in trouble. Given the framing, I feel like I’m right there next to Red… hiding out, too. So, it’s not just Parks’ eye for lighting and composition, it’s his compassion for his subject that illuminates this work.

The image of Red Jackson was part of Gordon Parks’ photo essay “Harlem Gang Leader.”  It was his second major assignment for LIFE, and he spent a month with 17-year-old gang leader Red Jackson and his gang.

Parks hoped the photo essay would show that, with the right kind of help, juvenile delinquents could turn their lives around.

Childhood’s End

The photo below was shot while Parks was at the FSA.

“Young boy standing in the doorway of his home on Seaton Road in the northwest section. His leg was cut off by a streetcar while he was playing in the street.”

On the surface, this photo seems fairly straightforward. There’s a boy standing on crutches looking at two children across the way. The camera is placed at the boy’s eye level, so I see the world from his vantage point. He’s a smallish figure, just a little boy framed by a large doorway. For me, the composition shows his sense of loss and isolation. The walls and door seem to loom over him. They’re like a visual metaphor showing how his injury overshadows him, upending his childhood and challenging his days.

The diagonal lines of the door panel send my eye past the boy to the two children seated on the stoop. As the boy regards the children across the way, his position in the frame accentuates the gulf that separates him from his playmates. There’s a tentativeness in the boy’s body language, which gives me a glimpse of what he must be feeling.

It’s easy to imagine the boy’s mother standing somewhere in the shadows, her hands clasped in hope that her little boy will somehow be able to heal from this tragedy. This photo makes me share Park’s empathy for the boy’s plight. There’s vulnerability there, but also dignity.

An Invitation

The exhibit “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950” will be at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. until Feb 19th of next year. I hope you get a chance to see the show.

After taking a year off, I’m excited to be writing again for The Vision Thing. After looking at Gordon Park’s work, I kept wanting more and this post ended up longer and more detailed than I expected.

So, what are your thoughts? Too much information? Just right? Your comments are always welcome.

Under the Cover of Darkness: Capturing the Journey

Say you’re an African-American photographer that’s won a MacArthur grant for your evocative portraits. And your images depict young people and the black experience in Harlem and the South.

from the series Harlem, USA by Dawoud Bey

Your photos of everyday people illuminate a sense of the inner person…

from the series Harlem, USA by Dawoud Bey

as your images allow their personalities to shine through.

Then you decide to recreate the experience of escaped slaves making their way to freedom. You focus on capturing their journey on the Underground Railroad. You’re inspired by a Langston Hughes poem that ends, “Night coming tenderly, black like me.”

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black by Dawoud Bey

You know that escapees found their way to freedom under cover of darkness. The tender blackness of night offered hope and the chance for a safe passage to freedom. But how do you photograph that? For a night journey can also be a time of mystery, danger and the unknown. So how do you capture that in a series of photographs?

Capturing the Journey

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

This was the challenge for photographer Dawoud Bey.

MacArthur Foundation photo

In a NYT profile, Mr. Bey explains:

“I wanted the photographs… to pull you back to the experience of the landscape through which those fugitive black bodies were moving in the 19th century to escape slavery.”

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

For me, the photos create a strong point of view. They present a glimpse of what you might see if you were moving stealthily across unfamiliar terrain.

Dawoud Bey:

The photographs recreate “the spatial and sensory experience of those moving furtively through the darkness.”

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

I can see how this image evokes a sense of that clandestine journey. I can imagine hiding behind a sheltering tree, scanning the darkness for the way forward. Driven by hope, feeling the danger.

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

Or in this one and the one below, seeing the obstacles you might encounter as you move under cover of night, making your way through the shadows.

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

The Underground Railroad that slaves traveled to freedom was a clandestine network of secret routes and safe houses. Escapees that followed it’s path, aided by freed slaves and abolitionists,

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

hoped to reach Canada or a free state where slavery was outlawed.

Encountering “Station Hope”

A way station on the route to Canada lay in Cleveland, Ohio. There, inside St. John’s Episcopal Church, stood “Station Hope.”

St. John’s Episcopal Church

Dawoud Bey:

“St. John’s was the final Underground Railroad station that fugitive slaves, who had made their way to Cleveland, would take refuge before making their way to Lake Erie and then on to freedom in Canada.”

It still stands today, and was chosen as the exhibit site for Dawoud Bey’s photo essay, Night Coming Tenderly, Black.

Night Coming Tenderly, Black exhibit in the church pews. Photo by Field Studio

MacArthur Foundation photo


“To have the work shown in a space that had once been inhabited by fugitive slaves was deeply meaningful.”


Portraying a Tender Space

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

“It is a tender space through which one moves. That is the space I imagined the fugitive black subjects moving through as they sought their own self-liberation…”

Lake Erie, gateway to Canada, from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

 “moving through the dark landscape of America and Ohio toward freedom under cover of a munificent and blessed blackness.”

You Become Part of the Experience

I wanted to write about this photo series because, if you spend a little time with the images, I think you can see what Dawoud Bey was trying to express. They have a quietness about them, which I like, and a sense of movement as well. Knowing what the photos are trying to convey, I find they help me imagine what it must have been like to take that perilous journey to freedom. I wonder if they work that way for you too?

If you’re curious about his earlier work, a while back I wrote a piece for The Vision Thing on some of Dawoud Bey’s portraits. You can find it here.

So  what are your thoughts about these photos? Leave a comment and let me know.

Prowling the Dupont Underground

I recently had a chance to explore an abandoned site under Washington, DC’s Dupont Circle. Dupont Underground is promoting the site as a performing space for “cutting-edge arts, architecture, design and creative endeavors.” They made it available to our group of  urban explorers and about 12 of us went down to check it out and take some photos.


urban explorers photo by Liz Roll

I probably took about 200 photos down there and spent some time later editing them down to just a handful. I wanted the photos to express a feeling about the space, rather than just document it. I ended up with a mix and here are some of my favorites:



This was part of a sculpture that was abandoned there.



Inside the sculpture.


The underground station opened in 1942 and was originally designed for street cars. They would discharge their passengers here, below Dupont Circle. Walkways led to the mix of streets above. Everything is closed off now and, except for a few months here and there, has been shuttered since 1962. You can read a Washington Post story about the history of the space here.


This is what remains of a fanciful installation by a team of architects.


One of the tunnels to nowhere.


When the underground streetcar station was in operation. Washington Post photo


I love how the light plays on the tile and rusted ironwork.



img_1114 img_1148











This fanciful composition I discovered at the entrance is just part of a rusted iron grating.

As you can imagine, it takes creativity, vision and persistence to transform a Dupont Underground into something we can all use and enjoy. Still, it was not too long ago that the Highline in New York was an abandoned, rusting hulk. Now it’s a major attraction for visitors and residents of the city. I hope The Dupont Underground can do something similar here in DC and wish them well in their effort to create a haven for makers and creatives. They have events there from time to time, so if you’re interested, check out their site.

Creativity + Innovation = Maya Varma

What drives innovation? Some trailblazers are driven by curiosity, others by the desire to solve an intractable problem. People like Maya Varma are motivated to help others.


Maya Varma, photo from the Presentation High School site

The Desire to Make a Difference

When she was 14, a close friend was taken to the hospital with an asthma attack. Maya became curious about her friend and others with lung ailments. She learned that to measure airflow in the lungs and make a diagnosis, doctors use a spirometer, a device typically costing several thousand dollars. The WHO estimates 64 million people worldwide have some form of lung disease or COPD, which includes asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

In 2014, Maya Varma wrote on her blog:

“…total deaths from COPD are expected to increase by more than 30% within the next decade. Currently, it is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. Alarmingly, almost 90% of all COPD deaths occur in developing nations, where the patients have no access to expensive spirometry equipment.”

Confidence Borne from Experience

If a low-cost diagnostic tool could be created, there was the potential to intervene early and save thousands of lives. Was that something she could design and build? She was only 15 years old and a high school sophomore. Still, from an early age, Maya had developed a keen interest in designing medical equipment. She’d entered her first science fair when she was just five years old and over the years won many honors.

nbc site

photo from the KPIX TV site

“At that young age, I was introduced to the ideas of experimentation, failure, re-design, and occasionally, the priceless reward of seeing my projects actually work.”

Maya understood that experimentation and failure were part of the creative process, and she was able to marshall the courage to strike out for uncharted territory. With the help of a small grant from Johns Hopkins and a mentor advising her via email, she began to work on her project:

“I am working to design and engineer a portable, functioning low-cost spirometer that can be used to diagnose respiratory illnesses without the assistance of a qualified health care professional.”

Was it the exuberance of youth that kept her moving forward? Was her confidence borne from past experience designing science fair projects and winning so many awards? Or was it the desire to create a device that could help people with limited access to health care. Reading about her progress, you can see she was pragmatic and methodical in her approach, first solving one problem and then moving on to the next.

Form and Function

Maya worked on the project for two years, using a 3D printer, readily available electronic components and an app that she designed. The device she created can be used as a comprehensive diagnostic system, displaying its results when connected to a smart phone or tablet via Bluetooth wireless technology.

l.doane society for science and the public

photo by L. Doane for the Society for Science and the Public

From Smithsonian Magazine:

Varma’s spirometer has three main components. First, there’s the shell, made on a 3D printer. When a person breathes into the shell, the rate of the airflow is measured by a pressure sensor as breath passes through a fine, stainless steel mesh.

The sensor converts the pressure change to digital data, which is monitored by a microcontroller and transmitted through a Bluetooth connection to a mobile app that Varma created.

Maya Varma’s pulmonary function analyzer. (Maya Varma)

The pulmonary function analyzer, photo by Maya Varma

The app computes lung performance and illustrates it on the person’s smartphone, taking into account age, gender, weight and other factors. It’s able to diagnose five different respiratory illnesses—COPD, asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and restrictive lung disease—and also has a disease management tool that allows patients to record their symptoms and test results, and track the severity of their illness.

Maya’s invention can help doctors diagnose and manage potentially fatal lung disease as well as hospital-grade machines that are simply too expensive for developing nations.

The cost of Maya’s device? About $35.

Intel’s “Junior Nobel Prize” for Innovation

Intel Science Talent Search photo

Intel Science Talent Search photo

In March, 2016, Maya’s project won Intel’s Science Talent Search Medal of Distinction for Innovation.

Here’s a fun feature story about Maya from CBS Station KPIX (a commercial is imbedded at the beginning and then the story starts):

Maya’s device is an extraordinary achievement – a creative and innovative response to solving a difficult problem. But more than that, it’s a testament to what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it – and when you have the skill, drive and confidence to overcome doubt and failure.

Always Persevere

What advice does Maya have for the rest of us?

“It can get discouraging, but you can learn a lot from your failures. Always persevere.”

Thomas Edison said genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Yes, hard work and vision are key drivers of change. With all the advances in technology and the power of an unfettered imagination, it’s inspiring to see what one person, determined to make a difference, can accomplish. Kudos to Maya Varma – a highly creative innovator – and she’s only 17.

Intel Science Talent Search

Intel Science Talent Search photo

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