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Background Essay on Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was a renowned photographer, filmmaker, writer and composer who used his prodigious, largely self-taught talents to chronicle the African-American experience and to retell his own personal history. Gordon Parks was the first African American to work as a staff photographer for Life magazine and the first black artist to produce and direct a major Hollywood film, The Learning Tree (1969).

In the early 1930s, Parks joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, toured as a semi-pro basketball player and worked as a busboy and waiter. It was while he was a waiter on the North Coast Limited, a train that ran between Chicago and Seattle, that he picked up a magazine discarded by a passenger and saw for the first time the documentary pictures of Lange, Rothstein and the other photographers of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). In 1938, Parks purchased his first camera at a Seattle pawn shop. He began to specialize in portraits of African American women. Within months his pictures were exhibited in the store windows of the Eastman Kodak store in Minneapolis.  In Chicago, Parks continued to produce portraits, but he also began documenting the slums of the South Side. His efforts gained him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, which he spent as an apprentice to the director of the FSA’s photography project in Washington D.C.  In 1942, Parks joined the Depression-era photography project.

In his photographs, he was able to document the racist environment in the nation’s capital. Having personally experienced racial hostility and segregation throughout the city, Parks was able to capture the social and economic marginalization of African Americans. 

His focus became Ms. Ella Watson, a twenty-five-year government charwoman.  Parks shadowed Watson at work and at home producing an eighty-five image series that realized a domestic worker theme largely invisible in other FSA projects. It highlighted the inability for African Americans to advance beyond custodial positions in the federal government. Most important, the series made the life of an after-hours cleaner visible and distinctive. 

Three photographs follow: “Mrs. Ella Watson, Government Charwoman” Fig. 5.19; “Mrs. Ella Watson, Government Charwoman” Fig. 5.20; “Mrs. Ella Watson, a Government Charwoman, and her Grandchildren” Fig. 5.21.  These images document the hardworking, precarious life of Watson and her family. We see her in both public and private realms; the images draw attention to the multiple roles of her life.

We invite you to take a close, critical look at these photographs and what they reveal about African American life during this time period.

Source |

Nicholas Natanson, The Black Image in the New Deal: the Politics of FSA Photography. (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1992); Gordon Parks, A Hungry Heart: A Memoir. (New York: Atria, 2005).


Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Gordon Parks,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed May 20, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/512.

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