In American industrial hubs during World War II, what’s known as the “arsenal of democracy” rapidly manufactured the materials to support the Allied military efforts overseas. This largely invisible labor included a diverse workforce producing everything from steel and ammunition to the grease that lubricated tanks, airplanes, and weapons.
A young Gordon Parks photographed this work at the Penola, Inc. grease plant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1944 and 1946, visualizing the people operating the world’s largest facility of this kind in the world. The clarity and humanity in these images—where the heat and the grime of the plant are vividly present—show one of the twentieth century's preeminent photographers of life in the United States using the camera to honor the individuals undertaking these jobs without overlooking the intensity of their toil.
Mostly unseen by the public, these photographs are on view through August 7, 2022 in Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946 at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art. An accompanying catalogue published by Steidl in partnership with the Gordon Parks Foundation and the Carnegie Museum of Art includes over 100 photographs, many published for the first time.
“There have been numerous exhibitions in recent years in major museums exploring lesser-known bodies of his work, yet few people could shed light on this particular series before deeper research began,” says Dan Leers, the museum’s curator of photography who organized the exhibition.
Leers’ interest started with a 1944 photograph of a grease plant worker lifting a drum from a boiling lye solution, the steam rising phantasmagorically behind him. “‘The cooper’s room’ photograph sparked a deeper dive into the subject matter as I was immediately pulled in by Parks’ humanistic take on labor in Pittsburgh and the chance to explore how intertwined Pittsburgh’s manufacturing industry was with the Second World War.”
Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946 brings together around fifty photographs from the Gordon Parks Foundation, George Eastman Museum, Library of Congress, Roy Stryker Archives at the University of Louisville, and the ExxonMobil Historical Collection at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, UT Austin. Some are portraits of the grease makers and kettle tenders as they ride the crowded freight lift to their work stations or fill huge drums with the cooking kettle faucets; others take in the surrounding machinery, smoke stacks, silos, and railways that dwarf the workers who navigate lattices of grease pans and seal massive tanks of refined oil.
The Kansas-born Parks had spent years in various jobs across the country, from railroad porter to waiter, and was self-taught as a photographer after buying his first camera in 1937. In 1942, he received a fellowship with the Farm Security Administration. There, he trained under photographer Roy Stryker, chronicling work in the Depression-era United States. When Stryker became head of the Standard Oil Company’s public relations department, he commissioned Parks to take photographs of the grease plant.
“Although Parks’ images of the Penola Grease Plant were intended as marketing tools to help humanize the corporation’s public image, you can see Parks finding his stride as a photographer during his time in Pittsburgh,” Leer says. “He was greatly concerned with telling the story of these workers, the harsh conditions they endured, and recognizing their individuality.
In a March 1944 letter to Stryker, Parks described the plant’s conditions: “The interiors in the older buildings were extremely dark and absorbed plenty of light, so it was necessary to use long extensions and many bulbs. The extensions, throughout the day, were covered with grease.”
Among the pans of hot grease cooling on the floor and the colossal machinery, he framed dramatically lit portraits of workers pouring scalding grease and stacking the multitude of grease drums, just some of the millions of pounds of lubricant that would be shipped for war.
Parks took particular care to document the segregation in the plant, wherein the most intense tasks carried out with little protective equipment were often given to the Black workers. He noted in his letter: “Most of the personnel within the manufacturing units were Negroes and it was their jobs that presented the most colorful scenes. An attempt was made to minimize my coverage of their activities so that all the nationalities might be integrated into the story.”
Parks’ work in Pittsburgh became a point of local pride, with The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s major Black newspapers, covering his return in 1946. The Carnegie Museum of Art holds the archives of photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris who captured the occasion, including a radiant Parks on a tour of the newspaper printing plant.
Despite the sweltering conditions of the plant and the omnipresence of grease, there is also, in Parks’s sensitively framed photographs, a sense of Pittsburgh’s celebration of its industry and a recognition of its importance.
Author Mark Whitaker, in an essay for the catalogue, observes that in “the beaming smiles of some of Parks’s grease plant workers, we see the enormous energy and accomplishment that characterized Black Pittsburgh in those years. But in the wary gazes of other workers, we sense a premonition of what would happen after the war.” Segregation would persist and, as the manufacturing industry fell out, the Black communities of Pittsburgh would be heavily impacted by layoffs and neighborhood declines.
In 1947, Parks published his first manual on photography, and in 1948, he was hired by LIFE magazine as a staff photographer, the first Black person to have that role. Parks recalled in a 1964 oral history interview for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution, “Some of those Negro stories that I've done for LIFE and Standard Oil and other places have dealt with poverty, dealt with the emotional aspect of everyday living, because my own life was packed … with so much of it.”
He went on to work in film, writing, and music alongside his decades-long work in photography, always focusing his lens on how issues, places, and inequalities shaped the lives of individual people. As Leer said, “The images Parks made of the Penola Grease Plant speak to the importance of helping individual experiences be visible and heard, particularly for people who had few public advocates, something which endured throughout the rest of his career.”