Training his lens on social justice

Gordon Parks’s work confronted racism in the pre-civil rights era.

'Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman (1942)' Library of Congress. From Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-195

Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was a true Renaissance man, but his most enduring work lies in his photography. His images remain a powerful denunciation of racism and poverty at the crossroads of the Jim Crow and civil rights eras. A new touring exhibition and book illustrate his lifelong devotion to art and social justice. 

Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950 is a joint venture among the Gordon Parks Foundation, The National Gallery of Art, and book publisher Steidl. Newly discovered archival materials, including a trove of compelling unpublished images that underscore his early genius, detail his rise to prominence. 

In those fertile 10 years, Parks solidified his reputation as an intuitive, multifaceted artist. He collaborated with fellow travelers, including painter Charles White, in the intellectual and creative vortex of the Harlem Renaissance.

Parks’s immersion in photography began with a magazine he found while working as a railway porter. He immediately recognized the Dust Bowl images as powerful tools to communicate the exigencies of racism and poverty. Self-taught, Parks soon earned extra cash photographing fashion and African-American society life for newspapers and magazines. 

Awarded a fellowship with the federal Office of War Information in Washington, Parks worked under the expert tutelage of Roy Stryker, the visionary who mentored legendary Dust Bowl photographers. When Parks described his interest in photographing the charwoman Ella Watson who cleaned government offices, Mr. Stryker encouraged him. 

The photo of Ms. Watson, which echoes the Grant Wood painting “American Gothic,” was made early in Parks’s career. Watson’s confrontational stare, broom in one hand, mop in the other, against a US flag, was an indictment of discrimination. Parks continued to follow Watson, documenting the bare-bones existence she led blocks from the nation’s capital. 

“The New Tide” traces Parks’s emerging voice through newspaper clippings, contact sheets, and timelines. Essays, including those by photo critic Deborah Willis and editor Philip Brookman, provide context to Parks’s emergence not only as a photographer, but also as a profound artist.

Joanne Ciccarello is a former Monitor photo editor who teaches photojournalism.

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