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Gordon Parks

Text from Philip Brookman, "Unlocked Doors: Gordon Parks at the Crossroads" in Gordon Parks: Half Past Autumn

His first photographs of Washington were portraits of workers on the street and children in a housing project in the city's Anacostia neighborhood. Parks soon learned that photographing intolerance "was not so easy as I assumed it would be. " Then Stryker suggested that he speak to Ella Watson, a government char woman also working at the FSA. She became perhaps his most important subject.

In August 1942 Parks listened as Watson told her story. "She had struggled alone after her mother had died and her father had been killed by a lynch mob," he recalls.

"She had gone through high school, married and become pregnant. Her husband was accidentally shot to death two days before the daughter was born. By the time the daughter was eighteen she had given birth to two illegitimate children, dying two weeks after the second child's birth. What's more, the first child had been stricken with paralysis a year before its mother died. Now this woman was bringing up these grandchildren on a salary hardly suitable for one person."

After hearing these words Parks asked if he could photograph her. He then exposed his first negatives of Watson, producing a series of images that today are icons of American culture. His first and best known picture of her is American Gothic, 1942. It shows a dignified and serious woman staring straight into Parks's lens. His simple, geometric composition mimics her imperturbable stare. Looking straight into her stolid eyes, one is drawn into her world, right through any stereotypical or prototypical barriers that might normally be established by her appearance. She is posed like the farmer in Grant Wood's archetypal composition American Gothic, 1930, holding a broom and mop in place of the farmer's pitchfork. Behind her, hanging from above and filling the frame like a powerful, translucent beacon of irony, is the American flag. "Stryker thought it was just about the end," remembers Parks. "He said, 'My God, this can't be published, but it's a start."

Ella Watson's gaze out of this photograph is truly transcendent. One glimpse into her eyes reveals the depth of her understanding, of the dichotomy between beauty and tragedy, and the irony implied by the limp flag hanging over her head. Clearly, a humanistic connection - a strong relationship based on some form of mutual understanding - was made between the photographer and his subject. It is apparent in this photograph that Parks, early in his career, was able to listen, understand, and silently convey his own compassion for Watson as a complex individual with a serious story to tell. It is Parks who posed Watson, who constructed the stark visual ambiguity of the scene, and whose eyes met hers at the moment the portrait was made. She looks directly at him as he stands in for the rest of us who have since encountered her stare. Here, for the first time, he was able to surpass his own feelings to express his understanding of her experience. Consequently, this photograph has become a portrait of both America and one unique individual. "Photographing bigotry was, as Stryker had warned, very difficult," wrote Parks. "The evil of its effect however, was discernable in the black faces of the oppressed and their blighted neighborhood lying within the shadows of the Capitol. It was in those shadows that the charwoman lived, and I followed her through them - to her dark house, her storefront church; to her small happinesses and daily frustrations."

Parks continued to photograph Watson and her family during the ensuing months. Following on the heels of his project about poverty in Chicago's south side, her story became his second sustained photographic essay. Watson was for him symbolic of the oppression he experienced - both in Washington and in Kansas as a child - yet Parks sought to picture her life as one filled with love and spirituality as well as one fraught with difficulty. He accompanied her between work and home and photographed her environment: her apartment, street, church, and grocery store. He also depicted her adopted daughter and young grandchildren growing up in this segregated environment, creating a framework for investigating the effects of bigotry on one family and showing the various ways they had risen above them. One of the most complex and enlightening of these images is Ella Watson and Her Grandchildren, August 1942. This multilayered image cleverly unveils four generations of Watson's family together in her home. The photograph is divided into binary sections that each convey different impressions. The tension between these parts creates a meaningful narrative that begs questions about her past and the unknowable future awaiting her grandchildren.

On the left side of this picture Watson sits in her kitchen surrounded by the kids. She has just finished feeding them and everyone is relaxing, lost in thought on a hot summer evening. This domestic scene might be one from a play, framed by curtains on the left and the vertical door frame on the right. The lighting is also theatrical. As Parks looks in with his camera from outside the room, their space seems to recede illusionistically like a stage set. One sees right through to the back door and into the August twilight. The family is posed as though in a painting; Watson cradles her youngest grandchild on her lap, recalling innumerable works of art throughout history that depict a mother and child, symbols of birth and hope for the future. This is a tight knit family group that also brings to mind the Depression era portraits of sharecropper families by Delano, Evans, and Lee.

Parks's photograph is bisected vertically by the geometry of the kitchen door. While the left side portrays the family realistically - they are posed much in the spirit of 1930s documentary representation - the right side emerges like an otherworldly dream, a translucent reflection of, or counterpoint to, the theatrically constructed scene opposite. Watson's adopted daughter appears as an apparition in a hazy mirror. She is relaxed and seated, yet seems to hover within its frame. The curve created by the hem of her dress echoes the camber of the mirror as well as the lyrical calligraphy incised on the dresser under the looking glass. Like Orpheus gazing at his reflection to ponder his memories, the introspective look on the daughter's face mirrors that of Watson herself, she symbolizes a young Ella daydreaming about her future. Indeed, the daughter is smiling and looking directly at a framed photograph of an elegantly dressed couple who are, as Parks remembers, Watson's parents. They appear as a page from her family album that, after so much tragedy, emotionally connects the different people in the picture. These astutely composed links bring together each generation of the family as one, echoing Parks's portrayal of Watson as an individual with a past and a future, dreams and a harshly real present. The photograph collapses four generations of history into one complex tableau that represents both individual and collective experience.


 

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