The groundwork for Gordon Parks’ career was laid early on.
Born into poverty in rural Kansas in 1912, he was the youngest of 15 children raised on a small farm. Following the death of his mother when he was 14, Parks went to live with a sister in St. Paul, Minn., but he was sent away only a year later.
By the time he first picked up a camera from a secondhand shop in 1937, Parks had already worked as a singer, piano player, busboy, traveling waiter and semiprofessional basketball player. His dogged determination to extricate himself from poverty became as apparent as his willingness to do whatever he could to survive.
A mere five years later, Parks would go from a burgeoning amateur to being awarded the first Rosenwald Fellowship given to a photographer, affording him the opportunity to work with legendary photographer and editor Roy Emerson Stryker at the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C.
He would then go on to become a fashion and lifestyle photographer for publications such as Ebony and Glamour before being hired as the first black photographer for Life magazine in 1949.
This pivotal first decade of what would eventually become a storied 60-year career is the subject of the exhibition “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950,” currently on view at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth.
“This exhibition explores an incredible decade in Parks’ career, when he transitioned from self-taught local portraitist to become one of the most heralded documentary photographers in the world,” says John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs and the exhibition’s curator. “It takes us vividly into the black experience of 1940s America, sharing how Parks learned to use the camera as his weapon to combat racism and to teach, without sentimentality, the values of human uplift.”
Split into five chronological sections — A Choice of Weapons (1940–42); Government Work (1942); The Home Front (1942–43); Standard Oil (1944–48), and Mass Media (1945–50) — the exhibition showcases a selection of Parks’ seminal early projects alongside a number of lesser-known works.
Moving through the years, we see Parks develop his moody, environmental aesthetic, combining studio portraiture and street photography into a highly psychological documentary style bubbling with tension.
Highlights of the exhibition include his 1942 profile of government office cleaner Ella Watson, one of the stories Parks covered while with the FSA. Watson, who cared for her household on a salary of little more than $1,000 per year, is the subject of Parks’ iconic image “Washington, D.C. Government charwoman” (1942), which he would later retitle “American Gothic” after the Grant Wood painting of the same name. The image became emblematic of the disparity facing black Americans, particularly at a time in which many fought and worked for a country at war while routinely being denied basic rights.
Another powerful story is Parks’ coverage of 17-year-old Red Jackson, the subject of his 1948 Lifemagazine story “Harlem Gang Leader.” Although the final version deviated from the more nuanced vision Parks had planned, the story is a harrowing testament to the interconnectivity of poverty and violence and the degree to which much of it is inflicted on children.
Indeed, the portraits of children are the most haunting of all the images in “The New Tide.” Given his own experiences, Parks was keenly aware of the psychological toll that poverty exacted on the young, and his photographs of kids bearing the emotional and physical scars of being poor and black in midcentury America are as gutting as they are striking.
Parks would go on to become one of the preeminent photographers of the civil rights movement, and it bears noting that the children depicted in his early photographs would have been the same age as many of the civil rights protesters who were beaten at lunch counters and attacked by dogs and police officers. In this light, perhaps Parks’ camera as a “weapon” is less about showing the world how the other half lives and more about giving the disenfranchised the strength to fight for their lives.