The Iconic Photography of Gordon Parks: An Introduction to the Renaissance American Artist

I felt the need for me to some­how or anoth­er, use human­i­ty to get peo­ple to become aware of how peo­ple suf­fered. That was what drove me to it.

Poet, nov­el­ist, jazz pianist, clas­si­cal com­pos­er, co-founder of Essence mag­a­zine, and first Black direc­tor of a major Hol­ly­wood film, based on a book he him­self wrote.… Oh, and he also direct­ed Shaft, the high water­mark of Blax­ploita­tion film and a pro­duc­tion, says Evan Puschak, the Nerd­writer, above, “that helped to save MGM and the larg­er stu­dio sys­tem from bank­rupt­cy.” Gor­don Parks lived “enough for ten lives,” but the resume above miss­es out on Parks’ “great­est con­tri­bu­tion to Amer­i­can art in the 20th cen­tu­ry… his pho­tog­ra­phy.”

The self-taught Parks began tak­ing pic­tures at 25, inspired by news­reel footage of the bomb­ing of an Amer­i­can gun­ship. After see­ing the film, he pur­chased his first cam­era and soon moved to Chica­go, where he honed his craft in the ear­ly 40s and devel­oped the skills that would bring him to the New Deal’s Farm Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion. There he worked under the leg­endary Roy Stryk­er, the for­mer Colum­bia econ­o­mist who also hired Dorothea Lange, Walk­er Evans, Edwin Rosskam, and oth­er pho­tog­ra­phers who went on to have long careers in pho­to­jour­nal­ism.

None of these Depres­sion-era gov­ern­ment pho­tog­ra­phers neglect­ed the Black expe­ri­ence in Amer­i­ca; under Stryker’s direc­tion, the FSA did its best to faith­ful­ly doc­u­ment work­ing-class and poor Amer­i­cans of all back­grounds. Before being com­mis­sioned to do so, how­ev­er, Parks, the only Black pho­tog­ra­ph­er in the group, was already seek­ing out can­did, inti­mate images of life on the South Side of Chica­go. When he began work­ing for the FSA, he pro­duced one of the most icon­ic images of the peri­od, “Amer­i­can Goth­ic,” a solo restag­ing of the Grant Woods paint­ing fea­tur­ing a clean­ing woman named Ella Wat­son, broom in one hand, mop in the oth­er.

Stryk­er, one of the most dar­ing pho­to edi­tors of the time, helped estab­lish the bold doc­u­men­tary style that dom­i­nat­ed in the com­ing decades of Look and Life mag­a­zines. But even he saw Parks’ “Amer­i­can Goth­ic” as too incen­di­ary. As Parks remem­bers in a clip above, “he says, ‘Well, you’re get­ting the idea, but you’re going to get us all fired. (Laughs) He says, ‘This is a gov­ern­ment agency, and that pic­ture is an indict­ment against Amer­i­ca.’” Parks did not get fired. Instead, he went on to work for the FSA’s suc­ces­sor, the Office of War Infor­ma­tion, and pho­tographed the Tuskegee Air­men.

Parks’ skills as an artist were wide-rang­ing: his vision took in every­thing. He doc­u­ment­ed the Black expe­ri­ence in the 20th cen­tu­ry with more sen­si­tiv­i­ty and depth than any oth­er pho­tog­ra­ph­er. His pho­to essay of a Harlem gang leader earned him the first staff appoint­ment for a Black pho­tog­ra­ph­er at Life in 1948. He would go on to doc­u­ment the Civ­il Rights move­ment and both cel­e­brat­ed and ordi­nary peo­ple around the coun­try and the world for the next sev­er­al decades, return­ing often to the fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy in which he got his start. He was a renais­sance artist with an activist’s heart. Parks once called the cam­era a “weapon against pover­ty and racism,” but he tend­ed to wield it much more like a paint­brush.

You can view gal­leries of Parks’ pho­to­graph­ic work at The Gor­don Parks Foun­da­tion web­site.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Art of the New Deal: Why the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment Fund­ed the Arts Dur­ing the Great Depres­sion

Yale Presents an Archive of 170,000 Pho­tographs Doc­u­ment­ing the Great Depres­sion

Found: Lost Great Depres­sion Pho­tos Cap­tur­ing Hard Times on Farms, and in Town

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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