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.

Up From Addiction: Portraits of Courage

What would you see if you turned addiction upside down? Being a recovering addict yourself, and a woman, what if you captured images of other women who overcame addiction’s clutching demons? You would hope, by telling their stories, you might reach some of the 200,000 women who may die this year from their addiction and remind them there are those who were able to make it to the “other side.”

Introducing Rocio de Alba

Rocio de Alba

I’d like to introduce you to Rocio de Alba and her photo series on women who have been sober for ten years or more, “There is a Crack in Everything.” From the NYT Lens Blog:

“I celebrated nine years of sobriety Dec. 29, 2016. I nurture my recovery like a newborn child. I attend a 12-step program, therapy, and practice unconventional forms of meditation or prayer. People who survive the claws of addiction are considered miracles, because long-term recoveries are rare and addiction is on the rise.”

“For me, it’s clear the odds are against us. Ten years of recovery is nothing compared to the millions who die. It is the sporadic and humble success of my exemplars that inspires my recovery and this project.”

There’s a Crack in Everything

The photos of women and their stories are from her site and the NYT Lens Blog.

B.C.G. in Long Island, N.Y. She has been sober since 2001.

B.C.G: “I tried desperately to drink myself to oblivion daily because I didn’t want to feel all those painful emotions I tried to ignore all my life. People say that addicts are weak and have no willpower. If it were that easy, I’d have been sober 40 years by now, believe me. The truth is choosing sobriety has been the most empowering change I’ve ever made.”

Rocio wants to show an image of each woman that explodes the typical portrayal of addicts as “haggard, perpetually in angst and destitute.” She saw the project as a collaboration and asked each woman to pick the location for the photo shoot.

Rocio: “Some choose a space that brings them peace and comfort. One subject wanted to be photographed in the last place where she woke up from in a drunken stupor.”

Karen, in Forest Hills Park, Queens. She has been sober since 1997.

Karen: “I’ve walked through a death, moves to various states, childbirth, miscarriage, marriage, changing jobs, losing my husband overnight, illness and more. The gift is that I can face adversity head-on and not duck out. I can be present for myself, family and friends. I take responsibility for my actions today. I don’t steal, lie or cheat. I am dependable, reliable and loyal. I am strong and I am courageous.”

Alanna, in Forest Hills, Queens. She has been sober since 2006.

Alanna: “When I started my sober journey I really thought life was over. This was the lie I told myself again and again, as I agonized over what to do about this problem of mine. Ten years later I can tell you that I have found a freedom and happiness that I was unaware existed.”

“An Independent yet Miraculous Transformation”

From the Lens Blog:

Rocio: “The only criterion was they had to be sober for 10 years or more. It seems an independent yet miraculous transformation occurs within each woman during that time period. Not everyone reaches this milestone, and even if they do, without constant vigilance a relapse is almost inevitable — in fact, some of my subjects experienced repeated relapses and near-death experiences before they found solace in recovery.”

Ms. Bailey, in Massachusetts. She has been sober since 1958.

Ms. Bailey: “I’m grateful for everything that has ever happened to me. I have outlived so many dear friends and family members. I caused so much suffering to my children but Lord knows I’ve worked effortlessly to redeem myself to them and so here I am in Massachusetts with my beautiful daughter and her husband taking care of me. We do a lot of damage as addicts, but it’s like I have always said, from scars make stars.”

from Rocio’s site

Art Saves Lives

On the site Art Saves Lives International, Rocio describes how her journey as an artist became an antidote to the emotional turmoil fueling her addiction:

Rocio de Alba, from her site


“It wasn’t until I studied Claude Cahun and Nan Goldin’s work that I realized I could use art as a way to overcome personal difficulties. Many times during a panic attack, state of deep depression or a moment of anxiety, I can simply pick up my camera, begin photographing, and it’s almost as if I am transported into a mental state of mind that is soothing and authentic to my inner self.”

Alice. Kew Gardens, Queens. She has been sober since 2002.

Alice: “Whenever I feel overwhelmed in life and I feel like giving up or using, I go for a jog or a walk — rain or shine. All the world’s troubles just seem to melt away.”

“Always a Good Reason…”

I’ve had some experience with addiction; I was a dedicated cigarette smoker for many years of my life. Back then, there was always a good reason to light up. Cigarettes were tightly wrapped around my sense of myself and what I was about. You could even say cigarettes defined me, as any random thought or feeling would call up the desire to reach for the next smoke.

It took years and many, many failed efforts to finally quit. I’m not trying to equate my experience with Rocio or the women she honors in her photographs. I’m just mentioning it here because addiction in one form or another plagues so many people and the ones fortunate to come out the other side have struggled mightily to get there. That’s one reason I find her portraits so rewarding.

Rocio’s Other Art Projects

Rocio has other conceptual photo projects on her site that are worth exploring. Some projects remind me of other photographers who explore identity and stereotype,  Cindy Sherman and Nikki S. Lee, as she inserts herself into her emotionally tinged imagery.

“Falling to Pieces” from her project Girl Anachronism

“Sinking” from Girl Anachronism

Rocio de Alba, from her site


“To choose a career as an artist means you are willing to let go of all those fantasies and work from the heart to create work you are proud of and hope that it somehow connects to an audience and maybe even touches someone.”



More than anything, we humans are a crazy stew of emotions, sometimes pain and all those turbulent feelings, sometimes joy and that lightness of being. That’s why I wanted to end with that photo of Rocio. To remind us that so much is possible if you are “willing to work from the heart to create work you are proud of…”


Navigating Time, Place & Identity

Portraying Women of a Certain Age

A few days ago I encountered some striking portraits of women of a certain age.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

The portraits seemed to have an almost mythic sensibility – posed, yes, but also very natural.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

The more I looked, the more I could feel the character and life experience of each woman playing across her image.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Such strong, yet simple pieces – so much vitality, poise and personality in each photograph. We rarely see images of older women at all and if we do, they never look so finely honed, as if caught in the middle of a fashion shoot.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Yet here was one after the other, modeling not clothes, but their grace, dignity and sense of themselves, as if the photographer had managed to somehow portray the very essence of their identity.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

I wondered, who captured these moments and enabled us see these women in this light? Who created these images and why? I think you’ll find the answer surprising.

Introducing Evelyn Bencicova

These photos are part of RIPE, a recent personal project by Natalia Evelyn Bencicova, age 23. Evelyn grew up in Bratislava, Slovakia, attends university in Vienna and is now based in Berlin. Before she first picked up a camera, in 2012, she worked as a model.

Evelyn, from a Bird in Flight interview:

I can communicate well with people and get close to them. Most of the time I photograph friends or people with whom I intend to be friends with. This way they are giving me something for the photo. I really appreciate it and I also feel that I need to give something back to them.

photo of Evelyn Bencicova by Marek Wurfl

Evelyn, from a Design Ideas interview:

I portray women of great courage and character. Ladies who are not afraid to display their natural beauty and aging… In every silver hair and wrinkle is written an extraordinary life story. They are turning social prejudice into nonsense and exchanging usual phobia for a celebration of life.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Evelyn continues:

Even though I’m very young, I can feel huge social pressure created around aging. According to commercial fashion and beauty magazines, it seems that women above 40 almost don’t exist. Wrinkles and other natural signs of time on human body are considered unwanted and shameful…


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

I decided to show proud female characters who are not only beautiful but also active. They are artists, businesswoman, professors or workers, mothers, grandmother or even great-grandmothers.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Their inner strength and beauty even exceeds graceful looks and proves that even time can play in your favor, if it is time and life well spent.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

When Identity and Individuality Vanish

As you can see, Evelyn is an extremely gifted artist. Where RIPE opens up a world of strong individual identities, ASYMPTOTE, a project created with Adam Csoka Keller, explores how identity and individuality vanish when confronted by a vast and unyielding bureaucracy. In ASYMPTOTE Evelyn and Adam use photography and a surrealist aesthetic to recreate the psychic ambiance of life in Czechoslovakia under socialism.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Evelyn, from a Kaltblut Magazine interview:

For ASYMPTOTE I’m using places from socialistic era with real history. It is truth that a location is somehow representing certain state of mind, mood or atmosphere of the photo… If it is the right place I usually know it immediately.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Besides few technical parameters the most important is to feel the energy of the space. I mean this feeling, that something happened there but you are never sure what was it. It usually activates my imagination more than anything else.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

From a Train to Create interview:

I’m very passionate, impatient and fast. I always know what kind of feeling and situation I want to get from each shoot but I work with composition and posing usually straight on the set. If everything was prepared and planed it would lose part of its magic.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Unexpected details and accidents are the things, which make me really excited and often they lead the final results. Our shootings are really strong, physically and also emotionally; I need to feel the real presence and connection between people.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

I want the story to be real, truly happening on the set. Creativity always comes when you go out of your comfort zone and try something what you are not already good at.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

Here’s a short video by Adam Csoka Keller that offers another view of ASYMPTOTE: 

ASYMPTOTE from Adam Csoka Keller on Vimeo.

Passion, Art and Identity

Evelyn is seemingly fearless about her art. If you go to her website, you’ll see other projects equally intense and strange. Powered by her fierce artistic energy and passion, as her imagination soars to new heights, her capacity for creative expression seems to flow beyond boundaries.

Marek Wurfl (1)

photo of Evelyn Bencicova by Marek Wurfl

Youth is a passionate time, with a fervor and sense of engagement that won’t quit. That enormous explosion of energy can produce brilliant work, a burn out or both. Still, it’s good to be reminded of the immense artistic power that all that focus and creativity can unleash. As we grow older, it’s easy to be content with a more comfortable path, or to loose one’s way in a thicket of duty, responsibility and practicality.

As Elle Luna showed us, we are constantly finding ourselves at the crossroads of “should” and “must.” Encountering an artist like Evelyn Bencicova may help us navigate a path back to our own forms of creative expression – if we allow ourselves the opportunity to take it.

From a Bird in Flight interview:

I am absolutely in a trance, like an obsessed person, when I am shooting. I am addicted to it.


photo by Evelyn Bencicova

From Chasseur Magazine:

In my pictures you can see a lot of emptiness because that is the thing that scares me the most. I don’t want to spend what life is left in me in a very basic way. I want to fill it with passion and intense moments.


photo by Camilla Stoorgard for the Daily Metal site

I am in my studio from the morning till late in the night. People come, we sit and talk, then we take photos the whole day like this. I need to believe that I have the power to change things, at least for myself. Always learn and never give up – is my basic motto, which I hope to never forget along the way.

So what do you think? Does her work speak to you, too? Leave a comment and let me know.

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