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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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”
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.
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:
“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
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.
The photo below was shot while Parks was at the FSA.
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.
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.