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  • Manju Parikh

Awed by the Genius of Gordon Parks, His Amazing Photographs and Their Relevance to our Present Times

Manju Parikh relates her experiences touring American Gothic exhibition.

American Gothic - 1942 • Gordon Parks Gelatin silver print • Gift of Frederick B. Scheel • 2007.35.169 Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art

With trepidation because I had not toured a photography exhibition before, I signed up to tour the American Gothic: Gordon Parks and Ella Watson exhibition. What has helped me are the many opportunities to tour the exhibition through public and private tours, and three in-gallery conversations (Cross Currents).

In preparation for the tour, I attended our curator Casey Riley’s training session and learned about a four-year engagement with the Gordon Parks Foundation to bring this unseen and unique photo exhibition to Mia.

It is a point I never fail to mention to visitors that this is not a traveling exhibition, and this series of photos has not been exhibited before.

Manju having a lively discussion with students from the "Race Matters" class at St. Olaf College.

As I looked at the photos in preparation for the tour, I wondered if there was a way to connect the different parts of the exhibition, which includes four sections: Labor, Care, Faith and Community. I felt that to understand the significance of the star attraction of the exhibit, American Gothic, the photo of Ella Watson with broom and mop, I needed to provide the context of the photo, including a brief account of Gordon’s journey at the time he took the photo and the relevance of other photos of Ella Watson and her family, her community, and surroundings.

I read the exhibition catalogue and began reading and browsing through Gordon Parks' four memoirs and other books (24 by my count!). What an amazing story of his early life! I pieced together various significant incidents of his early years and the rough and turbulent parts of his teen and young adult years.

The fifteenth child of a family of tenant farmers in Fort Knox, Kansas, he was raised with love and guidance by his older siblings and parents. Hard labor on the farm provided the family with sufficient sustenance. He thanks his mother often for giving him the right direction: No excuses, you can achieve everything that a young white boy of your age can accomplish.

Growing up in a segregated and violent environment, young Gordon did not hesitate to use force to fight back aggression from other boys. However, his older disabled brother Leroy advised him, “Pedro [Gordon’s nickname], you have been roughing up people lately. Your brain is more powerful than your fist. Try using it.”

Gordon’s arrival in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1942 after winning the prestigious Julius Rosenwald Fellowship is the end point of his tumultuous teen and adult years, which began with leaving Fort Knox for St. Paul at the age of 14, when his mother died.

In St. Paul, he learned to survive through many odd jobs, including being a porter on the Northern Pacific Railroad. Accidentally he found a copy of Life magazine, where the photos of destitute sharecroppers during the Depression years by photographers employed by Farm Security Administration (FSA) fascinated him.

This incidental discovery directed him to become a photographer. He moved to Chicago and began to work at Southside Community Art Center. Here he was encouraged to apply for the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship by fellow artists and was selected to join the FSA in 1942.

When Gordon arrived in D.C. in early 1942, America had entered the Second World War and government was eagerly calling on African Americans to join in the war effort.

The next interesting part of Parks’ journey was his first day experiencing blatant racism and discrimination prevalent in segregated Washington, D.C. Filled with anger, Gordon was eager to go out and use his camera to document the injustices. At this point, Roy Stryker, his mentor at FSA, played a critical role in guiding him. It was important for Gordon to learn to verbalize his experience through his photos — that is, how to take a photo that can tell a story. He asked Gordon to study the files of photographs of the prominent photographers employed by the FSA.

Another fascinating part of the story for me is how Gordon connected with Ella Watson. Talking to Roy, Gordon conveyed his continued dilemma — how to visually capture prevalent racial bigotry and injustice. Roy pointed to Ella, who was cleaning the corridors, and asked him to go talk to her.

D.C. Government charwoman cleaning after regular working hours, July 1942 • Gordon Parks

Gelatin silver print, 35.56 × 27.94 cm (14 × 11 in.)

Courtesy: Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Gordon connected with Ella and heard about her poignant life: her father had been killed by a lynch mob, her mother died young, her husband had been accidentally shot dead when she was about to give birth to her daughter, and her daughter had died in childbirth leaving behind two children, one of whom had paralysis.

Ella was educated and had applied for a job as Notary Public. Although qualified, Ella did not get the job because she was Black. As Philip Brookman, consulting curator of photography at the National Gallery of Art, described, “Something clicked for Parks as he spoke to Watson and realized that she embodied … (the) discrimination that he sought to address with his camera … a government employee of over 20 years … still sweeping floors and cleaning offices from 5:30 pm to 1 am on a salary of $1080 because she was Black, unable to advance, even during wartime, when African Americans were expected to fight for a freedom they could not share.” [Exhibit catalogue]

I ask my tour participants, after they have looked at the photos in the exhibition and reassembled to discuss American Gothic, “What feelings do they see in Ella’s facial expression?” Often, the responses are “determined and strong.”

Speaking with young men who were interested in Gordon Parks' life.

I then ask, “What makes Ella strong and resilient?” The answers convey her single-handedly providing for her grandchildren and her faith. These observations help connect the different parts of the exhibition and make them relevant — that is, seeing Ella through her family, work, and community.

Receiving Anointment, Washington D.C., 1942 • Gordon Parks Gelatin Silver Print, 4" x 7"

Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, receiving anointment from Reverend Clara Smith during the "flower bowl demonstration" service held once a year at the St. Martin's Spiritual Church. Washington, D.C. Courtesy: The Gordon Parks Foundation

Gordon Parks had humanized Ella. She had been an “invisible” essential worker, unknown to most in her workplace. By photographing her in these different contexts, he gave us a whole picture of her life.

Gordon Parks’ photos of Ella Watson highlighted important but unacknowledged contributions of African Americans at that important time.

Let me end with some quotes from Gordon Parks:

Camera is a weapon, shining light on what would otherwise go unnoticed.”

“I pointed my camera at people who needed someone to say something for them. They couldn’t speak for themselves.”

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