By Dan Polletta
Seeing a magazine changed Gordon Parks life.
Born in 1915 as the youngest of 15 children in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks’ early life was marked by struggles with racism and segregation. On his own by age 15, Parks bounced around from job to job trying to survive. He eventually became a railroad porter.
While working that job in 1937, a dining-car waiter handed him a magazine that had been left behind on a train.
“[Parks] saw these photographs of migrant workers who had been dispossessed off their farms. They were scrambling to make a living and get to the West Coast, where they hoped they might find employment and maybe fields that weren’t dustbowl dry,” said Cleveland Museum of Art Curator of Photography Barbara Tannenbaum.
Moved by the photos he had seen and wanting to fight against the oppression he himself had suffered, Parks made a decision that would shape his career path.
“He decides that photography is an incredibly powerful medium and that it could be a weapon to end racism, discrimination and poverty,” Tannenbaum said.
Parks then bought a camera at a pawn shop and taught himself photography. In a little more than a decade, he went from being a untrained amateur to one of the nation’s leading photographers. Many of the key pictures he took early in his career are now on view in the exhibit, “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950,” at the Cleveland Museum of Art through June 9.
Parks went on to become a celebrated photographer, and he was also an accomplished musician, painter, author and filmmaker.
In 1940, Parks moved to Chicago and opened a portrait business. He specialized in taking pictures of society women. He also began capturing the lives of African-Americans around the city, which helped him land a fellowship in 1941. Armed with the award, which included a monthly salary, Parks moved to Washington D.C. to join the Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) Historical Section, which was photographing the national’s social conditions.
Seeing how shocked and disturbed Parks was with the level of segregation he found in the nation’s capital, his mentor, Historical Section Director Roy Stryker, made a suggestion.
He told Parks to photograph older black people and ask them to share their stories about growing up and living with racism. Parks began taking photos of African-Americans going about their daily lives, including Ella Watson, a woman he saw each evening when she came to clean the FSA offices. Parks’ 1942 photo of Watson arguably became his most famous one. The photo featured Watson stoically standing in front of the American flag with her mop and broom. Parks called the picture “Government charwoman,” but years later renamed it “American Gothic.”
Tannenbaum said Parks was very familiar with Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” a famous 1930 painting of a farmer and his daughter standing in front of the farmhouse, and he was trying to draw a contrast with his photo.
“He was making that comparison between the benefits of the ownership of American land and this charwoman, who has the American flag behind her. All those values of the heartland and American patriotism and right, and here she is working with a mop and a broom, as opposed to the people in the Grant Wood who are standing in front of their farm, which they own,” Tannenbaum said.
In 1948, Parks’ career took another major turn when he began freelancing for “Life” magazine. A year later, he became “Life’s” first African-American staff photographer. Tannebaum said Parks documented the whole of black American experience for the magazine’s readership, giving many of them a view they had never before seen.
“’Life’ reached so many homes, including African-American homes, that it brought these images to a wide array of people,” Tannenbaum said.
For Parks, the aesthetic element of his work was, of course, important, but for him photography served a larger purpose.
“Parks talks about photography as a ‘weapon.’ His goal was not just to take photos, but to get them out there and to communicate what he saw, in both the poor neighborhoods and rich neighborhoods, showing wealthy people and poor people alike,” Tannenbaum said.