Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman (American Gothic), 1942
Gordon Parks made Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman (American Gothic) in July 1942, weeks after 300 magazines printed the American flag on their covers to celebrate the nation’s first Independence Day during World War II. The photograph depicts federal worker Ella Watson posed before a flag hanging in a government office. The power of Parks’s iconic portrait lies in its juxtaposition: the stars and stripes, slightly blurred, behind the sharply focused, stoic cleaning woman. Watson was cleaning offices at the Department of Agriculture, unable to advance in a segregated country that nonetheless required her support in a time of war. Ebony published Government Charwoman in March 1948. Years later Parks titled it American Gothic, referring to Grant Wood’s famous painting.
One of the most important photographers and filmmakers of the 20th century, Gordon Parks (1912–2006) was a humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice. He left behind an exceptional body of work that documents American and international life and culture from the 1940s through the early 2000s. His focus was on race relations, poverty, civil rights, fashion, and urban life. Parks was also a distinguished composer, author, and filmmaker who connected with many of the luminaries of his day—from politicians and artists to athletes and celebrities.