How can it be that America’s greatest photographer produced a striking, original and insightful body of work highlighting an important aspect of the most dramatic event in the nation’s history and those pictures are almost unknown? Ironically, the photos were commissioned by one of the largest corporations in the world specifically for the purpose of promotion.
What Gordon Parks’ pictures taken in Pittsburgh at the Penola Inc. grease plant–a subsidiary of Standard Oil–during 1944 and 1946 failed to achieve in the moment, capturing the public imagination and making Americans feel better about the petroleum giant after it was accused of colluding with Nazi Germany, they more than make up for some 75 years later as a fascinating look into the mind of an artistic genius, and a snapshot of Pittsburgh, America and industry at a critical point in the history of all three.
Now through August 7, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh shares the photos during the exhibition “Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946.” More than 50 images on view have never been seen publicly before.
Parks was sent to Pittsburgh at the request of Roy Stryker who had been hired by Standard Oil to capture the Penola grease plant as part of a corporate public relations effort during World War II. Stryker was Parks’ former boss in the documentary photography program at the U.S. Farm Security Administration. Standard Oil was looking to create a photographic archive documenting its global industry and the workers and their families who were instrumental in making that possible.
Parks’s visit coincided with the height of the plant’s productivity—at the time, nearly double that of its next-largest competitor, ultimately producing nearly five million pounds of lubricant to support the country’s war effort. The product it specialized in was called “Eisenhower Grease,” a new, critical material needed to fuel U.S. troop efforts toward the end of the war.
The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe needed a special kind of grease. Something which would protect mechanical parts submerged in saltwater while covered in sand to support amphibious operations. No such product existed prior to the future president’s urgent request for it from American industry. Within a matter of weeks, Standard Oil researchers were able to develop the lubricant and the Penola plant produce it in volume.
Parks’ resulting photographs from Penola—dramatically staged and lit, striking in their compositions— foreground the importance of the story of industry and war preparation in the U.S., a source of pride for the workers and people of Pittsburgh.
How were these pictures ignored?
“The photographs in the archive were made freely available to all publishers and media outlets, provided they credit SONJ (Standard Oil Company of New Jersey). The fact that only a few relatively minor press outlets picked up these pictures indicates that there was not much public demand for them at the time,” Dan Leers, Curator of Photography at the Carnegie Museum of Art and exhibition organizer, told Forbes.com. “Since then, interest in Gordon Parks’ work has mainly centered on his time working as a ‘LIFE’ Magazine photographer. The photographs he made at the grease plant in Pittsburgh pre-date that time and were thus overlooked.”
John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust was broken up into smaller parts, one of them being SONJ, after a 1911 U.S. Supreme Court ruling determined the company violated antitrust law for its control of 91% of the nation’s oil production.
Leers was late in discovering the series himself, not becoming aware of the work until 2016 when a photo titled Grease Plant Worker (pictured above) caught his eye in a San Francisco gallery.
“I was struck by the dramatic contrast and composition of the photograph as well as the worker’s heroic pose. In some ways, it felt like a photojournalistic image, but in others, it felt much more staged,” Leers remembers. “I reached out to the Gordon Parks Foundation to inquire about this picture and learn if there were more. They replied that there were several hundred Parks photographs from this assignment and that most of them were unknown. We agreed that these photographs were important and should be shared with a broader, contemporary audience.”
The photograph’s title was later changed to The cooper’s room where the large drums and containers are reconditioned. Here a workman lifts a drum from a boiling lye solution which has cleaned from it grease and dust particles, Parks’ original caption for the image which provides much more information and context about the dangerous, toxic nature of the work.
The work being performed inside the grease plant was miserable. Hot, filthy, noisy, sticky, stinking. Harsh chemicals were in use everywhere for production and cleaning. The hours were long–war production not limiting itself 9-to-5. Everything was heavy. The air polluted.
At least it was for the men–Black and white–producing grease on the plant’s floor. Parks also pictured their support staff, the carpenters and electricians, the scientists, the label makers and truck drivers, as well as senior management and executives–all white men–who filled out the operation.
Parks documentation of workers divided by roles, race and class presented a snapshot of persistent issues in labor and industry that continue today. Far from an impassive observer, Parks wanted his photographs to convey meaning and help improve the lives of his subjects, many of whom were discriminated against because of their race. He would continue this approach in his next position as the first African American staff photographer at “LIFE” magazine.
The shots were manipulated by Parks for both storytelling and artistry.
“From a photography book/manual Parks published entitled ‘Flash Photography’ (1947), we know that most of the pictures he made in Pittsburgh were composed and artificially lit,” Leers said. “In the book, Parks includes diagrams for many of the photographs in the exhibition where he lays out the placement of his camera, his subject, and the multiple flashes or strobes–sometimes up to four flashes!–used to light the scene. We reproduced the relevant pages and diagrams from this book in the exhibition catalogue we produced in partnership with the Gordon Parks Foundation titled ‘Gordon Parks: Pittsburgh Grease Plant, 1944/46.’”
Leers finds many of the photographs on view to have a cinematic quality on account of their stark lighting. He suggests this anticipates the artist’s later work in film. Among Parks’ staggering career achievements was directing 1971’s “Shaft.”
Parks’s second visit to Pittsburgh in 1946 was highly anticipated and covered by The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s most prominent Black newspapers. The paper enlisted its preeminent photographer, Charles “Teenie” Harris, to document the event. In 2001, the Carnegie Museum of Art acquired Harris’s archive, which chronicles life in Pittsburgh from the 1930s through the 1970s. Among the more than 70,000 negatives are Harris’s pictures of Gordon Parks.
As for the grease plant, it ceased operation in 1999, but the building still stands in Pittsburgh’s Strip District on Smallman Street between 32nd and 33rd. It’s currently used for tire manufacturing.
As for the photographs, they are finally receiving their due recognition.
“On one level, as a photo-historian, I appreciate Parks’s heightened photojournalistic style. On another level, I understand the significance of this industrial moment to the history of Pittsburgh, the WWII effort, and the greater world,” Leers said. “And on yet another level, I see the differences and similarities in working conditions and roles that are echoed in the debates over unionization and related labor struggles in today’s socio-economic context. Parks’s photographs stand at once as significant historical records and calls to action for contemporary audiences.”