Tuesday, June 23, 2015
June 23, 2015: Gordon Parks and America: A Photographer’s Life
[Earlier this year, I had the chance to visit an amazing photography exhibition at Boston’s Musuem of Fine Arts: Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott. In this series, I’ll use that exhibition as a starting point for highlighting some of the many ways Parks’s career and life illuminate late 20th century American history and culture. Add your thoughts, whether you’ve seen the exhibition or not, in comments!]
Three projects that represent three American stages in Parks’s iconic career.
1) The Farm Security Administration (FSA): In the early 1940s, Parks secured his first steady photography gig, working for the influential Roy Emerson Stryker in the Information Division of the New Deal’s FSA. It was during this time that Parks created the photograph that remains one of his most famous and powerful works, American Gothic, Washington, D.C. (1942). In its connections of work and class to race and America, the photo reflects how fully Parks wedded his own social and cultural interests to the FSA’s mission; in its fundamental, unmistakable humanity, it reflects Parks’s lifelong talents as a portrait photographer.
2) The Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) Photography Project: After brief stints at the Office of War Information (OWI) and freelancing for Vogue magazine, Parks once again went to work for Stryker, this time for a series dedicated to capturing industrial settings and communities. Produced for the oil company’s Public Relations department, this project was at least as propagandistic in aim as anything done by the OWI. But as reflected in a photograph like Workmen in Powerhouse, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1944), in his work for the project Parks couldn’t and didn’t elide either his social and cultural interests or his talents for capturing complex human identities and lives. The result is a snapshot of mid-century industrialism that complements the more rural focus of the FSA work very potently.
3) The Restraints: Open and Hidden: Life magazine didn’t publish the Fort Scott series about which I wrote in yesterday’s post, but they did employ Parks as a photojournalist for twenty years; and while much of that work comprised portraits of celebrities and other iconic images, it also allowed Parks to continue investigating and portraying the issues and themes of most interest to him. That was especially apparent in his 1956 photo essay The Restraints, which followed three Mobile, Alabama African American families through their daily lives within the Jim Crow South. Not as personal to Parks as the Fort Scott series, perhaps, but just as historically and humanly revealing and powerful, as was every stage of his impressive career.
Next Parks connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?