A Choice of Weapons

After a hardscrabble life in the Depression, Gordon Parks picked up a camera instead of a gun. But as a massive retrospective of his work reveals, his sympathies have often remained with those who went the other way.

A year-long stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps followed, and while enlisted, Parks married his first wife, Sally Alvin. The couple moved back to Minnesota and in the coming years they would have a daughter and two sons. Parks's next job as a porter on the North Coast Limited was to prove his last days in the service profession. Reading the magazines that passengers had left behind, Parks discovered the seminal work of the great Depression-era documentary photographers--Walker Evans, Jack Delano, John Vachon, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Carl Mydans--and this inspired him to invest in a used camera that he would deem "his weapon against poverty and racism." After being fired from the train--he threatened the dining-car steward with a bread knife after a racial incident--Parks put his new weapon to the test.

What arrived next, finally, was an uninterrupted string of successes: a show in Chicago; an unexpected opportunity to shoot fashion for an upscale Minneapolis couture; and ultimately, a chance to work for Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration in Washington D.C. as the agency's first black photographer. Parks, inundated by a mean logic of hardship and injustice, had chosen not to believe in that logic; compare the phenomenon to that of a man standing neck-deep in rising water while insisting that he's mostly dry.

And yet at this fortuitous juncture in Parks's sojourn, an unlikely one for him to have ever reached, the story becomes even more incredible, and it can be told through his pictures.

"American Gothic" may be the most famous piece in the Parks oeuvre and it is one of the first. Shot in 1942 within the offices of the FSA, the photo features a black charwoman, Ella Watson, standing before an American flag with a mop in the background and a broom in the fore--like Grant Wood's stoic farmers planted in front of their barn. She wears round spectacles and a frumpy dress and her jaw is hard and mannish. Her eyes see no pleasure, and that tacit resignation speaks more convincingly than any rhetoric of hope or change. The focus is tight and the individual broom bristles jut forward akimbo from the frame; the stars of the states line up in orderly rows, out of focus.

"American Gothic," like the rest of Parks's FSA work, is poetic and unsentimental. In one piece, a line of Benedictine nuns crosses a yard, their cowled heads turned down to the scripture, a beach tree bending in the foreground of a wind-swept prairie. In another, a woman props up her young son from the armpits, his jaw slack and his mouth a black hole; the white satin of Babe Ruth's open casket fills the lower right-hand corner of the frame.

Upon the dissolution of the FSA photographic program, Stryker sent Parks to work for the Office of War and Information where he was assigned to shoot one of the first companies of black airmen. These photos convey the sexy mechanical curves now familiar from car ads, and a cocky heroism familiar to much war photography. And conservative politicians in Washington, anticipating just this, pulled Parks off the job before the pilots shipped overseas, depriving them of the publicity and Parks of a livelihood.

Parks next tried to find work in New York, where he visited the art director of Harper's Bazaar. Though the man declared that he was impressed by Parks's portfolio, no assignments were to follow. "'I'm sorry to be frank with you,'" Parks recounts the man saying in his autobiography Voices in the Mirror, "'but there is an inflexible rule here in the Hearst organization that forbids our hiring Negroes.'" Parks took the same pictures to Condé Nast, and starting shooting fashion for Glamour and then Vogue.

Surprisingly, some of Parks's most challenging photography would appear in the eminently commercial pages of Life magazine, where he would create pleasant portraits of American artists and musicians, while also capturing some of his grimmest documentary series. One of these chronicles a few bloody weeks with the Midtowners, a New York youth gang then involved in a turf war. In one picture, a teen crouches in a darkened room, his right hand planted in a thick layer of crumbling tile, his left holding half a brick. In another, a teen bloodied at the mouth and chin, wearing a blood-spattered, double-breasted pinstripe jacket, lies supine on the ground, hands balled in fists above his head, eyes closed. At the top of the frame, a disembodied hand touches his sleeve. This young man is not going to get up.

And as Parks has looked for violence, violence has looked for him. After a white colleague greeted Parks with a quick kiss in public, three Texas men were dissuaded from attacking him only after he purchased a loaded gun in front of their eyes. Following the murder of Malcolm X, the photographer and his family were sent overseas, as the FBI suggested that the Nation of Islam had targeted Parks as a close friend of the slain leader. (Ironically, Parks's name resurfaced in the news a few years ago when the FBI investigated his goddaughter, Qubilah Shabazz, for allegedly plotting the murder of Louis Farrakhan.) Ultimately, instead of doing harm, Parks has put himself in harm's way, and he's told stories of the life there without sensationalism, cheap emotion, or easy empathy.

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