WAMU reviews Gordon Parks

By Mikaela Lefrak


Early photographs by Gordon Parks have been on display at the National Gallery of Artsince November. That’s not long enough, in the opinion of one reporter who is kicking herself for not scheduling a return visit before the photography exhibition closed on Feb. 18.


Parks is now widely considered to be one of the greatest photojournalists of the 20th century. He shot for high-profile magazines like Vogue and Ebony and was Life‘s first black staff photographer. He took pictures of Canadian oil rigs and Brazilian slums, Parisian high fashion and Harlem gang wars.


But in 1942, Parks was still an unknown photographer working on a yearlong fellowship with the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C. His images from that year captured quotidian moments in the lives of the District’s working class, particularly African Americans.


If you didn’t make it to the National Gallery’s exhibition — or if it left you, like us, wanting to see more — you can browse a selection of his D.C. photographs below, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Home Life

Parks photographed daily rituals like family dinners and idle hours spent surveying the neighborhood. He paid particular attention to children and their reactions to their surroundings, which were often dire.


Frederick Douglass Housing Project

Parks’ images of this Anacostia housing project showed a thriving, middle-class African American reality. Little boys play in sprinklers and little girls twirl in matching dresses, while parents watch from the windows. The Frederick Douglass Apartments still stand today.


Government Charwoman

Parks met Ella Watson at the Farm Security Administration, where she worked as a cleaning lady. His photographs of her at work, at church, and at home with her family put a rare spotlight on a black woman worker. The final photo in the slideshow below is the most famous image from the series. He later renamed it “American Gothic.”


Workers of D.C.

Peanut vendors. Construction workers. Cleaners. Panhandlers. D.C. is a government town, but Parks captured how people outside of the halls of Congress made a living.


Firehouse Station Number Four

Parks often backlit his subjects and posed them in heroic stances, making legends out of regular people.