Gordon Parks, Washington (southwest section), D.C. Negro woman in her bedroom, November 1942, printed later, gelatin silver print, Corcoran Collection (The Gordon Parks Collection), 2016.117.112
In 1942, Gordon Parks arrived in Washington, DC, with a fellowship to work as a photographer at the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The Historical Section of the FSA was headed by Roy Stryker, who famously hired photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Jack Delano to document the impact of the Great Depression on American farmers. Stryker encouraged Parks to incorporate words into his photographic process, suggesting, “you can’t just take a picture of a white salesman, waiter, or ticket seller and just say they are prejudiced…[you] need to verbalize first and experience first, then find logical ways to express it in pictures.”
Still an apprentice at the FSA, Parks was directed by Stryker to first explore Washington, then a racially segregated city, without his camera in hand. He went to buy lunch and a new coat, and tried to attend a film, but as a black man, he was turned away each time.
Think about your own experiences in your school, community, or city. What needs changing? Write an essay on this subject and using a camera, capture images that visualize the injustices you wish to call attention to.
“I think Roy stirred the interest in me to try and get to know people and get to know all kinds of people better and investigate their ills and their prejudices and their goods and their evil.” —Gordon Parks, oral history interview, December 30, 1964, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Early in his career at the Farm Security Administration, Gordon Parks was encouraged to consider how a series of photographs can tell a more complete story.
Using images of government worker Ella Watson and her family, split the class into groups and give each group one photograph from the series. Have each group discuss what story their particular image tells. Consider all of the elements of the photograph: subject matter, details, lighting, composition, perspective, and point of view.
Next, bring the class together to share the photographs and stories discussed. How does seeing all of the photographs together reinforce or change the story each group developed? Discuss what new stories you can now tell and what other connections you can make.
Try this exercise with other series in the image set. For instance, compare/contrast images detailing work of some kind. What do they say about labor in the United States? What can we learn about the nature of the American Dream?
Or, compare/contrast Parks’s photographs of children. Why might Parks have focused on children in his work? What do photographs of children accomplish that his other images do not?
Gordon Parks, Soapbox Orator, Harlem, New York, 1952, gelatin silver print, Corcoran Collection (The Gordon Parks Collection), 2015.19.4623
Gordon Parks and writer Ralph Ellison were friends and collaborators, simultaneously exploring through different means the daily injustices faced by black Americans. In 1948, Parks and Ellison walked the streets of Harlem together, photographing and writing about the connections between segregation and psychological health. Some of their findings were incorporated into Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, which explores themes of identity, community, stereotype, memory, and power through the voice of the narrator and his life experiences.
Ask students to identify and select five key passages from Invisible Man that focus on the broad themes identified above. Ask them to select one or two images from the set of pictures that Parks made in Harlem that focus on the same themes. How did Ellison and Parks explore each theme differently? What did each choose to focus on? Ask the students to explain which creative work they find more powerful, the text or the image, and why.