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How did photographer Gordon Parks become Gordon Parks?
This is the question that inspired curator Philip Brookman to dive into the artist’s formative years. The National Gallery of Art exhibit “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950” showcases the photographer’s work in the decade when he developed the skills and style that launched his career. Parks was a pioneer in documenting the African-American experience and was the first African-American photographer for Life magazine.
Parks came to Washington, D.C. in 1942 to work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). In D.C., segregation and racism greeted Parks at every turn: He was turned away from lunch counters and barred from department stores. This propelled Parks to use his medium to portray the effects of racism and poverty in the District. He continued shooting promotional pictures for the FSA (and later, for the Office of War Information). But he also captured powerful images of the city and its people, including the iconic portrait of Ella Watson, a custodian at the FSA, which became one of Parks’ best known and most widely circulated photographs.
“Gordon Parks: The New Tide” is on display at the National Gallery of Art until February 18, 2019. In conjunction with the exhibit, “The Films Of Gordon Parks” will be shown until February 10, 2019.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- Philip Brookman Consulting Curator, Department of Photographs; National Gallery of Art
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast how do private museums stay afloat in a region awash in public ones? But first, on his way to becoming a visionary photographer, Gordon Parks spent the 1940s honing his craft in the Midwest, D.C. and the east coast.
KOJO NNAMDIAn exhibit at the National Gallery of Art looks at these formative years of Parks' career "Gordon Parks: The New Tide, the Early Work 1940-1950" includes images from his time spent in D.C. where he captured the African American experience and the effects of poverty and racism in the District. Joining us to talk about the exhibit is its curator, Philip Brookman. He is a consulting curator for the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art. Philip Brookman, thank you very much for joining us.
PHILIP BROOKMANThank you.
NNAMDIWhat inspired you to curate an exhibit on Gordon Parks' early work?
BROOKMANWell, I knew Gordon Parks in the 1990s. I worked with him on a major retrospective exhibition. And I also knew him as a fantastic story teller. And I never fully understood his early career, his early work. He had written about it. He had written three memoirs and in doing that he really made his own life into a sort of role model for other photographers, for young people.
BROOKMANBut he also embellished his stories, and he didn't tell a lot about his early photographs. At least didn't tell a lot that made sense. I once asked him, what did you do with your early photographs from Chicago? And he said, well, I threw them out. I didn't really know what they were. And I questioned him about it, but I didn't get a good answer, until I really wanted to go back when I had the opportunity to begin doing research on this project. I wanted to go back and think about his earliest work and find out really how did Gordon Parks become Gordon Parks the artist we know.
NNAMDII've always thought of Gordon Parks, in addition to other things, as a great raconteur, but you said he embellished his stories.
BROOKMANHe did. I think that, you know, he was a photographer, but also a writer and a film maker, a poet, a musician and he was certainly writing -- you know, and this is, you know, really later in the 1960s -- he was writing his memoirs very much in the tradition of people he knew like Ralph Ellison or Langston Hughes or Richard Wright. And he understood well that, you know, to tell a good story you had to really, you know, create a narrative that was, you know, fully dramatic.
BROOKMANAnd, you know, he also -- he didn't remember everything that had happened when he was, you know, writing what happened later, you know, 20-30 years later. And so, you know, I think this was a great opportunity to go back and, you know, find the newspapers from the 1930s that really documented what he was doing.
NNAMDIThe exhibit of Gordon Parks' photography including time spent in here in the nation's capital in the early 1940s is at the National Gallery of Art through February 18. It's called "Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950." In addition you can see a slide show of some the images on our website kojoshow.org. How did Gordon Parks get his start in photography? What was his background before that?
BROOKMANGordon Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912. And he grew up in an environment of racism and poverty. He was the youngest of 15 children and, you know, he knew poverty, you know, around him very well. When his mother died in 1928, he was sent north -- it was her last wish that he travel north, really as a part of the great migration to Saint Paul, Minnesota to live with his sister. And he developed through great hardship in Saint Paul and Minneapolis and, you know, finally he got a job working for the railroad. He wanted to be a musician. He actually spent a lot of time playing piano, composing, you know, struggling to make it as a musician. And he had to support his family by then.
BROOKMANHe was married, had a child, and on the railroad he worked as a waiter on the dining car for the Northern Pacific Railway. And it was there that he discovered photography really. He saw left behind magazines. We don't know exactly which magazines, but, you know, it's Life Magazine, Look Magazine, you know, the picture magazines at the time that really impressed him with how a camera could be used to describe conditions of poverty. He saw photographs from the dust bowl era of America and he decided right then he wanted to be a photographer. He bought a camera in Seattle at a pawn shop for $7.50, he says and taught himself how to use it. The rest is history.
NNAMDIAnd a part of that history is his decision to move to Chicago. Why did he decide to move to Chicago?
BROOKMANWell, Parks developed in Minneapolis as a very competent self-taught amateur photographer. He was making pictures for newspapers and doing work sometimes for shops that needed fashion photographers. And he was really discovered there by a woman by the name of Marva Louis, the wife of the boxer Joe Lewis, who was a fashion model and a, you know, kind of amateur designer and she encouraged him to come to Chicago.
BROOKMANParks also applied for a Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship. He was encouraged by a number of his friends around the Southside Community Art Center in Chicago where he was given free studio space. And, you know, once he was in Chicago, he really began to understand the importance of taking his camera outside the studio.
NNAMDIYou mention the Southside Community Art Center, where Gordon Parks found a lot of people to meet and collaborate with. But not everyone knows about this period in American history when the federal government funded arts and artists. Can you talk about that starting with the Southside Art Center?
BROOKMANYes. During the Depression era of President Roosevelt's new deal, the government needed to work very hard to put people to work because unemployment was rampant the country. And one of the things that was done was a project called, The Works Progress Administration, which employed, you know, all kinds of people doing different things, but in some ways one of their most relevant projects was to employ artists to teach, to make works of art.
NNAMDITo write, Zora Neale Hurston.
BROOKMANTo write, yeah, Richard Wright wrote for the federal writer's project. And, you know, I mean, I think that then federal support of the arts was -- while, it was controversial, you know, it was critically important to the development of so many artists and one of their programs through what's called the Federal Art Project was to develop art centers in communities around the country.
BROOKMANAnd in Chicago they opened with funding from the federal government and support from the government an art center in the Southside called the Southside Community Art Center. This was a place that was like, you know, one of the most vibrant, you know, centers of visual art at the time throughout the whole country. And really, you know, represented what's now called the Black Chicago Renaissance.
NNAMDIWhy did Gordon Parks leave that community in Chicago, which he obviously loved being a part of to come to Washington D.C.?
BROOKMANI think that Parks wanted, you know, to become a professional photographer. He was encouraged by people in Chicago and yet he was, I think looking for an opportunity to, you know, develop his career and become part of what would be, I think, the mainstream media. He was, as I said, he was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship in early 1942. And because of connections between the Rosenwald Fund and the Farm Security Administration, another federal agency based in Washington, Parks was sent to Washington to work with what was then one of the most vibrant amazing documentary photography projects in the country.
NNAMDIWhat was the Farm Security Administration?
BROOKMANThe Farm Security Administration also known as the FSA was an agency first called the Resettlement Administration. And it was set up by the New Deal, by Roosevelt's administration to resettle farmers and retrain farmers across the country who had really lost their land in the dust bowl. And the agency, in order to document what they did, but also to, you know, help to encourage federal support through Congress. They set up a photography and film project that documented the work the FSA was doing all around the country. And so they hired some of the great photographers at the time. And Parks comes into this at the very end in 1942 just before the FSA is then disbanded, because it's the very beginning days of World War II.
NNAMDIAnd the FSA is looking to get support for the war effort in the African American community. And so, what role did Gordon Parks play in that as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration?
BROOKMANWell, one of the questions I ask myself is why would the FSA want to bring Gordon Parks to Washington. He had a fellowship. He was paid by, you know, fellowship money. But why in the waning days of the FSA would they want him, an African American photographer, who was, you know, really in training to be part of their program. And the answer that I found is that the government then needed to solicit support from African Americans throughout the country to support the war effort.
BROOKMANAnd this was a time when Washington itself was segregated, but also the military is segregated. The defense industries are segregated. And, you know, they were developing programs -- and I'll call them propaganda programs to ask for support at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was just really beginning. And I think African American leaders at that time were, you know, really interested to use the need for African American support to help gain more equality in the country, you know, a desegregated military and defense industries for one.
NNAMDII found it fascinating that one of his assignments was photographing what were then known as the Frederick Douglas dwellings, public housing, supposedly quality public housing in recently constructed in the D.C. Anacostia neighborhood. And that housing was for black defense workers. So that was how I guess Parks shooting that was intended to help popularize the war effort among African Americans. But when he first got to Washington, what was Gordon Parks' experience like?
BROOKMANWhen Gordon first came to Washington he had never really lived in a segregated city before. He'd gone to a segregated school in Fort Scott, Kansas. And he understood that, but since then he had been in the north and he hadn't lived in a segregated city. And one of his first assignments here in Washington, his mentor and the director of the FSA's photography project, his name is Roy Stryker, he told Gordon Parks to leave his cameras behind.
BROOKMANHe actually confiscated them. And sent him out into the city and said, I want you to go and have lunch at the lunch counter and go to the movies and by the way maybe you'll need a coat. You know, like a top coat. You can go to Julius Garfinckel's department store and buy a coat. And so Parks went out and his experience was, you know, I guess as historically we might expect, he was turned away from the lunch counter, couldn't go in the movie theater and in segregated Washington nobody would serve him at the department store. And so he came back --
NNAMDIAnd Stryker wanted him to experience that.
BROOKMANHe did. Yeah. And he came furious. He had this anger and, you know, passion. And he said, now I want to take my camera out and I want to show what that feeling is about. And I think that, you know, it took some time, but Parks then was asked to write about the experience and to write about how he would use a camera to document it. And really this is a time when Gordon Parks decided that he could use a camera as a weapon against poverty and racism. And one of the first things he does afterward was he met the cleaning woman.
NNAMDIHold that thought.
NNAMDIRight there. And let's talk with Kurk in Cottage City, Maryland. Kurk, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KURKThanks for taking my call, Kojo. Hello. I can't resist telling you since you guys were just talking about the WPA, Granddad Kramer who was a staunch democrat and New Deal man still referred to the WPA as, We Piddle Around. But I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma about 90 miles south of Fort Scott and I'm very aware of Parks' connection to Fort Scott. And I just have to -- before I ask my question of your guest. I just want to tell a good story about him.
KURKHe was bitter against Fort Scott throughout most of his adult life, because he felt like the graveyard there in Fort Scott where his folks were buried neglected the black part of the cemetery. Even the cemeteries were segregated. And where the whites were buried in Fort Scott there were lots of trees and bushes and it was nicely landscaped. But the black part was just barren. No tress at all. And as a very old man Parks' was invited to Fort Scott for something and he went.
KURKBut he told the then mayor, who was probably young enough to be his grandson how he felt about the cemetery there where his folks were buried. And the mayor of Fort Scott sometime in the last 10 or 15 years planted beautiful trees and shrubs all through the black part of the cemetery in Fort Scott. So by the time Mr. Parks died he felt better about his hometown. I think that's a good story.
NNAMDIThanks for sharing it. Now your question.
KURKQuestion for your guest is about Ella Watson, the woman who Parks photographed. I mean, those are his most famous photographs maybe. Have you come across -- have you found any of those children in those pictures or any of her descendants living in D.C.? Do you know anything about Ella Watson's family? Thanks for taking my call.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for raising that question. Before we talk about whether or not you found Ella Watson's family, for the members of our listening audience who don't know it, one of Parks' most well-known photos is a portrait of an FSA cleaning woman named Ella Watson. Tell us about that image.
BROOKMANParks' probably today most iconic photograph still is a photograph he made in July of 1942 in the Department of Agriculture Building and Ella Watson was a cleaning woman.
NNAMDIIn those days called a charwoman.
BROOKMANKnown then as a charwoman, who worked for the federal government for 26 years, and she had been unable to advance in her job even though she was qualified to get a better job, because she was black. And when Parks learned her story, which was, you know, in some ways kind of tragic story of again poverty and segregation, he asked if he could photograph her. And she in some ways then collaborated on a series of photographs, which is quite amazing.
BROOKMANParks' best known photograph shows Ella Watson posed in the office of the notary public at the Department of Agriculture. And she's posed with her tools, the tools of her trade, a broom in her hand and a mop leaning behind her in front of an American flag. And she's very upright in her, you know, kind of cleaning outfit.
BROOKMANAnd she, you know, looks a little bit away from the camera, but she's really, you know, looking almost at you. It's the juxtaposition of these symbols, the American flag with, you know, the face of the cleaning woman and her tools that created an image that in some ways shows the kind of inequality that Parks himself had experienced, because, you know, the flag then was this dramatic symbol of patriotism that was everywhere. And yet here was a woman, who because of the inequality of her life was unable to advance in her job. And so I think, you know, Parks put together an image using these symbols that, you know, is still with us today and still equally relevant.
NNAMDIThere's also a striking photograph of Ella's entire family, her adopted daughter and her grandkids and in the background a photo of her own parents. So what you're seeing there like four generations in that photo. That photo is also in the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. It goes through February 18. You can also see a slide show of some of the images on our website kojoshow.org. He left Washington in 1943. What did he do for the next few years and how did the time that he spent here impact the rest of his career?
BROOKMANI think that the time that Parks spent in Washington was, you know, seminal to his development. I mean, it's really -- this is the place where he really learned how to make photographs. And, you know, you mentioned the photograph of four generations of a family and that was a, you know, a typical strategy in FSA photographs to actually be able to tell a story though all of these different elements all within one picture.
BROOKMANSo, you know, Parks looked at the files. You know, he read everything they asked him to read. He did a tremendous amount of work both for the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information. And then when he leaves Washington, he actually moved to New York to continue working some for the Farm Security Administration. And one of the major projects he does then is to photograph Tuskegee Airman in training in 1943 at Sheffield, Michigan.
BROOKMANAnd he -- it's Selfridge Field. And he wanted to travel to Europe with the Tuskegee Airman to document African American pilots in combat. And he was denied permission to do that, because the government did not want to publicize African Americans in combat. And he then left government work forever.
NNAMDIIt's ironic. On the one hand, the government wanted African Americans to support the war effort. On the other hand, the government didn't want the public to see African Americans participating in the war effort itself. I'm afraid we're almost out of time. But this exhibit is called "The New Tide." Where does that phrase come from? And how does it capture the essence of Gordon Parks' early years?
BROOKMANWell, "The New Tide" comes from a piece of writing by Richard Wright, you know, the great African American writer, author, "Native Son" is probably his best known book. And Parks, when he photographed Richard Wright for the Office of War Information, Wright then inscribed a copy of "Native Son" to Gordon Parks. And he wrote in it, you know, for Gordon Parks, "To one who moves with the new tide." And it comes from the very final passage of Richard Wright's documentary book called "12 Million Black Voices."
BROOKMANAnd he wrote, "We are with the new tide. We stand at the crossroads. We watch each new procession. The hotwires carry urgent appeals. Print compels us. Voices are speaking. Men are moving and we shall be with them." And this is really Wright's kind of manifesto to the African American community saying, you know, because we have not had control of our own images in arts and literature and in, you know, photography and in magazines and movies, you know, we need to take control of those images and that is the new tide.
NNAMDIThe exhibit of Gordon Parks' photography including time spent in D.C. in the early 1940s is at National Gallery of Art through February 18. It's called "Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950." Philip Brookman is the Consulting Curator for the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art. Thank you so much for joining us.
BROOKMANThank you for having me. I had a good time.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, how do private museums stay afloat in a region awash in public ones? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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