Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: documentary photography

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.

Home: Where the Heart Is

Home is such a simple word, but rich with meaning… remembered smells, tastes and moments we carry forever… perhaps a haven, a refuge… or perhaps not. So much feeling resides in that simple word… home.


all images copyrighted by Nadia Sablin

When I first saw this image, beyond its elegant lighting, composition and serene beauty, I was struck by the relationship between the two women. It is so intimate – you can feel the years they’ve shared together. 3 I discovered they are sisters and spend their summers in a rustic cabin built by their father. 4 In their summer home in Russia they spend their days as they did when they were girls, doing everything by hand. 5 I also learned that they are aunties to photographer Nadia Sablin. Nadia spent her first 12 summers in this home too, then left Russia with her parents for America. 8 Nadia didn’t go back to visit this home until she was all grown up. When she returned she found much that was familiar… like hazy sunshine warming languid summer days… or the chill of morning mists drifting through memory like a recurring dream. 9 Nadia Sablin, from an interview in Framed Magazine:

“Russia has always stayed for me this land of childhood. You know, the magical place… I walked into that house and not only was it a trip back in time, you know, it smelt exactly the same.”


“The tablecloth on the table was exactly the same; literally, it was the same tablecloth, with the same impressions that I remembered. There were the same faded spots that I remembered, now more faded.”

7Nadia’s photographs have a simple elegance that echoes her subject matter. I love her eye for composition and her attention to the small details that honor the routines of daily life. 10 If you go to Nadia’s website you’ll see she’s an accomplished portrait photographer – yet her aunties pose a more complex challenge. The portrait that Nadia tries to capture here is larger than a single image – it’s really a portrait of a life – in this case two lives intertwined. She calls her project Two Sisters. 1112 Rural life has often been romanticized… being at one with nature and the seasons… living the simple life. Still, there’s an important connection there that has become lost in the digital age. The virtual world that claims so much of our time seems like vapor next to the small daily tasks the aunties pursue to keep body and soul together. Gathering berries to make jam is almost a meditative experience…  life, lived in the moment… Nadia, from an interview in this is the what:

“The two women are in their seventies, but carry on the traditional Russian way of life, chopping wood for heating the house, bringing water from the well and making their own clothes.”


“My photographs of them are a meditation on aging, family and a sense of belonging.  The house in which Aleftina and Ludmila live was built by their father.  The rugs are weaved by their mother.”


“They contribute to the home as well, with new wallpapers, hand-sewn curtains, quilts and lace.  Handwritten recipes are folded to contain seeds for planting, or rolled up balls of stray hair.”


“Their environment is as much a character as they are themselves. The house smells exactly the same as it did when I was a child, like burning pine cones and old books.”

17 How many times has her aunt waited for the meal to cook, watching the pot as the liquid starts to raise little heat bubbles. There’s so much quiet history there. Nadia’s images capture a rich tapestry of these quiet moments. How different their lives are from our own. 18 These photos make me think about what we’ve lost in the frenetic pace of modern life… how distant we’ve come from those simple tasks that fulfill us. I like the stillness of these frozen moments – they suggest a world at peace with itself. Perhaps that’s what Nadia found so appealing, what she was trying to capture with her camera. 19

Or maybe it was just a chance to revisit those magical memories from childhood…  where each moment seems so fresh and unspoiled. As Nadia tells it, her aunties feel their lives are unremarkable – they didn’t understand why she wanted to photograph them. Perhaps so, but many others feel Nadia has created some remarkable images.


Her photographs leave space for the viewer to enter the frame. They invite you to see and reflect. Do they remind us of what we seek… or what we’ve lost?

As  Thomas Wolfe wrote in Look Homeward, Angel: 

“Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door.”

So tell me what you think. How do you connect with these images? Do they have meaning for you? Leave a comment and let me know.

Louise Rosskam Rediscovered

Color photos of Washington, DC by Louise Rosskam

One of the less known Farm Security Administration photographers who documented America during the Great Depression, Louise Rosskam may enjoy greater attention with an exhibit at the American University and the publication of a book “Reviewing Documentary:  The Photographic Life of Louise Rosskam.”

In their informative artist bio, The Library of Congress calls her “one of the elusive pioneers of the Golden Age of Documentary Photography“, and a post on the blog Secondat gives additional insight into her work.  Although, she seemed to stay in the shadow of her photographer husband, she had great empathy for her subjects and perhaps a more creative approach to her work.  And she pursued her photography hoping it would be a catalyst for social change.  

15 photographers worked for the FSA but only 3 were women.  During her FSA years she photographed in Washington, DC, Vermont and Puerto Rico.  I like how she captures people within a sense of place.  As you meet them, you also get a feeling for how they live their lives.  As she said of her time in Washington, she would pass by areas of poverty and never know they existed.  Until she started taking photographs. 

Here’s how she put it:  “With a camera it means you have to talk to the people and you suddenly see an alley dwelling. There it is, these people are alive and living in it… It’s there and it becomes part of you and you can’t run away from it anymore once you are actually faced with it.  And the next best thing to that is seeing it in a photograph.” 

And, ” But gradually as I began to see these things and feel them really, I had to react to them so that other people would feel them and see them too.” 

You can read two interviews, one with her and her artist/photographer husband Edwin from 1965 and one from 2000 (after her husband had passed).  And you can find some of her images archived at the Library of Congress website American Memories.  

Louise in 2000

I’ve always been taken with that period in American History and the important work the FSA photographers accomplished.  They brought attention to the lives of every day Americans, capturing a sense of the desperation of the times as well as the courage and dignity of people struggling to cope with those difficult days.  And they did it with work that was eloquent, intimate and engaging.  And by doing so, they changed forever how we see ourselves and the world around us.