"Washington, D.C. Government charwoman" by Gordon Parks (1942)
"Washington, D.C. Government charwoman" by Gordon Parks (1942)

Before he became one of the world’s most formidable photographers, Gordon Parks made the choice to use photography as a weapon to fight injustice. It enabled him to work for organizations that would provide opportunities for him create photographs documenting parts of U.S. history. Parks, who was known for being the first black photographer at Vogue and Life, put in years of work before he landed in these positions, and the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition, Gordon Parks: The New Tide, chronicles the early part of his career. Though his photography documents a fraught sociopolitical time in America, his skill makes his work stand out from others documenting similar themes. He’s an artist with a remarkable eye.

Though he was born into poverty in a segregated Kansas in 1912, Parks saw opportunity. “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera,” he famously said. And with that power in mind, Parks bought his first camera from a pawn shop in 1937, when he was 25.

In the beginning of his career, he had a steady job as a dining car waiter and porter for a railway company and captured images in his spare time. But in 1941, he moved to Chicago to chronicle the South Side’s black ghetto. In 1942, he moved to D.C. to work as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration. Beginning in 1945, Parks went on assignment for Ebony, Circuit’s Smart Women, and Glamour magazines, and by 1949, he was spending months in Europe photographing artists, fashion icons, and movie stars.

Parks set the stage for high profile opportunities through years of passionate work chronicling the lives of the underclass. Gordon Parks: The New Tide pays homage to that aspect of his work. The exhibition is laid out chronologically; as visitors move from one gallery to another, they can see Parks’ progress in skill and technique. In the beginning of his career, Parks primarily took portraits, including portraits of Langston Hughes and the actress Anna Lucasta. These early portraits offer a glimpse of how Parks developed his eye by engaging with his subjects on an intimate level. He was able to bring feeling out of the people he captured, and his respect and affection for his subjects is evident in his photos.

One of Parks’ most iconic pieces,“Government Charwoman (AmericanGothic),” is a photograph of Ella Watson, who cleaned the FSA building after business hours. It’s situated in the exhibition along with some of his lesser-known photographs. The photograph depicts Watson with an American flag behind her, a broom in her right hand, and a mop in her left. The wall text in the gallery states that on her $1,080 annual salary, Watson was able to raise her adopted daughter and grandchildren, lived in a more-than-modest apartment above some shops, and was unshaken in her faith in God. Subsequent photographs in Parks’ series on Watson show her at work, at home, and a their place of worship. These images were first published in Ebony in 1942 and show the hardship that many African-Americans were facing in the Jim Crow South.

Parks’ work as a public relations photographer for government agencies humanized issues like poverty, racial discrimination, and classism, and many of these images juxtapose hardship with resilience. While the men and women he captured through his lens endured hard times, Parks was able to seize their moments of strength. As a photographer for the Office of War Information, he witnessed the aftermath of a riot in Harlem spurred by the wounding of a black soldier by a white police officer. His photos of the incident didn’t center on the material devastation that left the community rattled, but rather on the countenances of children, who in the wake of the riot, seemed unscathed by the happenings.

The photographs in this exhibition warrant high praise, not only for their compositional beauty but for what they represent. Parks had a special kind of foresight with his photographs: He knew he could combat racist and classist ills by documenting the struggles of the country’s most marginalized residents. With his camera, Parks shows his audience those who endure but overcome struggle.

From the images of little black children in Harlem to the Tuskegee Airmen, the photos in this exhibition illustrate the strength of a people. Parks photographed more than African-American subjects, and the photos in the NGA’s exhibition explore the ingenuity of other oppressed communities, allowing visitors to see the working class and their contributions to society.

In the early years of his career, Parks’ weapon of choice—his camera—made all the hopes, dreams, and rhetoric associated with being poor in America a reality for the privileged class. Parks fought injustice with his camera, which is exactly what he set out to do.

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