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.

Rediscovering Arthur Rothstein’s “Photo Stories”

Families were displaced by the Dust Bowl

Forced to move by drought, North Dakota, 1936
Families were displaced by the Dust Bowl
Photo Credit: Photo by Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

My dad, Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) was the first photographer hired by the Farm Security Administration, the New Deal agency that pioneered the use of photographs and “photo stories” to build public and political support for federal relief programs.

Starting in 1935, the Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration– “FSA,” for short–compiled an unprecedented, nationwide photographic survey of life in Depression-wracked America.

During Dad’s nearly seven years working for the FSA he refined the art of visual storytelling, producing hundreds of in-depth photo essays documenting the need for government assistance and the successful New Deal relief programs created in response.

FSA photos put a human face on problems such as “drought” and “failing farms” targeted by New Deal programs.

Dust threatens to engulf a home. Liberal, Kansas, 1936
FSA photos put a human face on problems such as “drought” and “failing farms” targeted by New Deal programs.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

Dad was fiercely patriotic. His parents, Jews displaced from Eastern Europe by pogroms, had found both refuge and opportunity in America. He was drawn to stories of migrants and the dispossessed that, through no fault of their own, needed government help. He brought a powerful sense of purpose to his New Deal assignments.

Dad’s boss at the FSA, Roy Stryker, shared Dad’s sense of purpose. Stryker believed that photography could serve as a tool to advance social justice. He thought that words with pictures provided irrefutable evidence of the need for federal assistance to struggling Americans. More than a dozen FSA photographers would eventually contribute images to Stryker’s extensive visual record of American life during the Depression and the early years of World War II. That collection, preserved at the Library of Congress, includes iconic images my Dad took as a young FSA photographer. His photographs of the devastation wrought by the drought and Dust Bowl remain the most famous of his career.

Photo by Arthur Rothstein for Look magazine

Eddie Mitchell, Birmingham, Alabama
Photo by Arthur Rothstein for Look magazine
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

The values my father inherited from his immigrant parents, reinforced by his New Deal tenure under Roy Stryker, can be seen in the work Dad created throughout his 50-year career as a photojournalist and documentary photographer.

After serving as a photographer in the US Army Signal Corps during WW II, and as chief photographer for a United Nations relief agency in China after the war, Dad spent 35 years as director of photography at the popular Look and Parade magazines. One of Dad’s first and most memorable stories for Look depicted the daily indignities of a young black man living in the segregated South.

Dad’s New Deal portfolio still stands out as surprisingly relevant. My father’s images from nearly 80 years past remind us that we still live among the dispossessed—those denied justice and made vulnerable by forces beyond their control—and that government has a responsibility to shield and support those who need a leg up.

 

Tenant farmer, Tennessee, 1937

Tenant farmer, Tennessee, 1937
The collapse of the rural economy displaced farmers from their land.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection