Fireside August 2020 Newsletter

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

More Than Just Pretty Pictures

Gordon Parks. Credit: Toni Parks, The Gordon Parks Foundation

Gordon Parks’ work epitomized the black-and-white photography of the Depression era. He joined the Farm Security Administration in 1942—the agency’s only black photographer. He chronicled African Americans’ everyday lives, poverty, racial injustice, and the struggle for civil rights. Parks died in 2006 at age 93, but continues to inspire a new generation of photographers documenting these turbulent times. Reflecting on Gordon Parks, the Brooklyn-based photographer Andre D. Wagner recounts, “The camera in my life started to make sense when I thought about it the way Parks did: I could use it as a weapon.” “Photography became more than just pretty pictures—it was a way to be defiant and to speak about society.” Watch Wagner’s video essay “On Being a Black Photographer.” (4 minutes).

In this Issue:


Gordon Parks, “Showing America to Itself”

American Gothic, Washington, DC, 1942

American Gothic
Washington, DC, 1942
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, FSA Public Domain

“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.” These are the words of photojournalist Gordon Parks (1912-2006). From his work as a New Deal photographer in the 1940s, through the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and into the 70s, 80s and beyond, Parks’ images of Black America made visible the country’s racist legacy and the struggles to overcome it.

Parks was born in 1912 in segregated Fort Scott, Kansas. His parents, tenant farmers, died when Parks was a child. By age 15 he was on his own, scraping by as a singer, piano player, busboy, and waiter. During the Depression, Parks, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, toured as a semi-pro basketball player. Inspired by photographs of migrant workers, Parks bought his first camera and taught himself how to use it. He got work as a fashion photographer and made portraits of society women, while also turning his eye to the social conditions of African Americans living on Chicago’s South Side. It was this work that earned Parks a fellowship and, in 1942, a job with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). He was the only Black photographer on the staff. It was the beginning of a long career that showcased the lives Black Americans.

Gordon Parks, March on Washington, 1963

Gordon Parks
March on Washington, 1963
Photo Credit: Photographer unknown, Courtesy: Gordon Parks Foundation

Mrs Ella Watson, a government charwoman, with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, july 1942[1]
Gordon Parks Washington, D.C. Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, July 1942 gelatin silver print sheet: 18.3 × 23.7 cm (7 3/16 × 9 5/16 in.) mount: 24.1 × 29.2 cm (9 1/2 × 11 1/2 in.) Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

 

“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.”

—Gordon Parks

Parks admired FSA photographers like Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein and Jack Delano. Under the FSA’s demanding director, Roy Stryker, Parks began making what he called, “stark photographs [that] accused man himself,” protesting the inequities he observed with keen eyes, nimble fingers, the light of a flashbulb. One of his best known photographs, “American Gothic,” a portrait of domestic worker Ella Watson, reflects Parks’ own encounters with racism in the nation’s segregated capital. Stryker feared that the photograph would so outrage white Congressmen that all the FSA photographers would be fired.

A family says grace before dinner, Anacostia Housing Project, 1942

A family says grace before dinner
Anacostia Housing Project, 1942
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, FSA

“I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the world, including racism, intolerance and poverty,” Parks told The New York Times in 2002.

The same can be said for those documenting America’s current social justice movements, like Yachin Parham in New York City. “A photograph makes the story real. You see the emotion, the love, the shapes, the light,” he says. In Boston, OJ Slaughter is also documenting the civil unrest. “While photography helps tell history, it can also alter history,” he says. Chloe Collyer, who is covering protests in Seattle, observes, “There are photographers in every large city in the country documenting a new global movement for Black lives. And that’s uplifting for me both as a photojournalist and a descendant of enslaved people.”

Says New York photographer Andre D. Wagner, who was inspired by Parks, “In America we want to sweep our history under the rug, but any real art won’t let you.”

With the highest caliber cameras and lowliest smartphones, there are a thousand Gordon Parks showing America to itself.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He's written for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Seattle Magazine.

Just Scratching the Surface

WPA concrete bridge

WPA concrete bridge
Escambia County, Alabama, 1939
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

The work of the Living New Deal is a lot like an archaeological dig.  Archeologists discover lost civilizations with the benefit of new Lidar technology, but we come upon exciting new finds digging through old journals, newspapers and archives.

I recently exhumed an obscure 1939 WPA report from the UC Berkeley library. Far more than dry statistics, the report illustrates how the New Deal transformed the lives of small town and rural residents alike.

The report, Progress of the WPA Program, contains everything the Works Progress Administration accomplished in two rural counties—Mahaska, Iowa and Escambia, Alabama, and two cities—Erie, Pennsylvania and Portsmouth, Ohio. In all four places, government put hundreds of men, women and youth to work providing needed infrastructure and services to their communities in order to combat unemployment during the Great Depression.

Sidewalk construction in Atmore, Alabama

Sidewalk construction in Atmore, Alabama
The WPA laid 15,000 feet of sidewalk to this city.
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

With the help of a nationwide network of volunteers, the Living New Deal’s growing website now documents more than 16,000 sites nationwide—parks, airports, city halls, stadiums, sewers, schools and more. The WPA report reveals that we have just scratched the surface, however. But since New Deal projects are rarely marked or mentioned in local histories, few, if any, of the New Deal’s improvements to their towns and counties are known to today’s residents.

The result is that many Americans mistakenly believe that the federal government does little or nothing for them or their communities, as Paul Krugman writes, even though the evidence of what good government can do is literally right under their tires and feet.

Dedication of WPA swimming pool in Edmundson Park

Dedication of WPA swimming pool in Edmundson Park
Oskaloosa, Iowa, 1937
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

A map of Mahaska County, Iowa, for example, shows hundreds of miles of rural roads that the WPA graded and paved, enabling farmers to get their produce to market in all weather. Another map of Portsmouth, Ohio, shows the levees and five new pumping stations that saved the town from frequent flooding of the Ohio River. New storm drains did the same for Erie, PA.

During this time, 400 Erie women—many of them heads of households—sewed more than 200,000 garments to be given to the poor, while some 700 people were engaged in sixty-five orchestra and choral groups. Workers for the Federal Writers Project compiled historical information on a played-out coal region near Oscaloosa, Iowa, whose largely Welsh residents were given music classes. Oscaloosa’s Edmundson Park has so many WPA features, it qualified for the National Register of Historic Places.

Between 1935 and 1939, WPA expenditures in Iowa’s Mahaska County alone totaled $1,150,434—$20,595,724 in today’s dollars.

As extensive as the information in this report is on the WPA, it does not include the work of the PWA, CCC, or other New Deal agencies that benefitted rural as well as urban economies and ultimately lifted the country out of the Great Depression. Much of what government built through local labor still benefits millions of people today, some 80 years on.

With more digging, reports like Progress of the WPA Program as well as unpublished manuscripts, can be unearthed at libraries, town archives and historical societies across America. The Living New Deal is uncovering some of the best evidence anywhere of what a true government for the people once achieved—and could again—and making it freely available. Your support makes our work possible.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.