If you’re a 1970s movie buff, you might recognize Gordon Parks as the director of “Shaft,” the 1971 drama in which Richard Roundtree played a tough but suave private eye who was Hollywood’s first Black action hero.
But long before he sat in a director’s chair, Parks had another, even more influential artistic career as a documentary photographer and photojournalist, one whose work often depicted the unfairness and squalor of a still-segregated nation, and elevated ordinary hard-working people to heroic status.
Perhaps his most iconic image is “American Gothic,” a 1942 portrait of a woman named Ella Watson who supported herself and her two grandchildren by cleaning offices at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., where Parks worked as a photographer before going on to fame at Life magazine. (Parks also took these photos of Watson and her family at home.)
“I choose my camera as a weapon against all the things I dislike about America — poverty, racism, discrimination,” Parks explained in his 1960s memoir, “A Choice of Weapons.” A documentary titled “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks,” exploring Parks’ enduring legacy, debuted Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, on HBO and HBO Max.
Now, 110 years after his birth in 1912, the resurgence of interest in Parks’ work is also on full display in an exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh of Parks’ photos of industrial workers at a long-vanished grease plant in the mid-1940s.
The images on display in “Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/46,” which runs through Aug. 7, 2022, show Parks’ distinctive style of using carefully staged and composed still photos as a storytelling device, and his ability to convey the struggles and resilience of men who spent their days performing grueling jobs in a dirty, dangerous setting.
Who Was Gordon Parks?
Parks was born Nov. 30, 1912, and grew up in Fort Scott, Kansas, where he learned to avoid white neighborhoods after dark, to sit in the peanut gallery in the town movie theater and to endure insults and occasional beatings from white thugs. “These indignities came so often that I began to accept them as normal,” he later wrote in his memoir.
He left at age 16 to live in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he worked bussing tables at a diner while making a name for himself as a player on a local basketball team, the Diplomats. In 1937, while working as a server on a passenger train, he saw magazines that featured photographers’ depictions of the Great Depression, including Dorothea Lange’s photos of migrant workers in California. He was struck by the power that a good picture conveyed and decided to become a photographer himself.
“I bought a book about photography and read it on the run to St. Paul and Seattle,” Parks told movie critic Roger Ebert in 1972. “When I got to Seattle I had some pay coming and I went to a pawnshop and bought my first camera.” The first photos he took were of seagulls.
“What’s really interesting about Parks is that he was completely self-trained as a photographer,” explains Dan Leers, Carnegie’s curator of photography, in a Zoom interview. When Parks bought a camera, he knew so little about how to operate it that he had to have the pawnshop owner show him how to load the film, according to Leers. “10 or 15 years later, he’s become such a master with the camera that he’s actually publishing manuals on how to do flash photography.”
Parks eventually found work as a fashion photographer, shooting subjects that included fashion designer and socialite Marva Trotter Louis, the wife of boxing champion Joe Louis. After he won a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942, the notoriety led to Parks being hired by Roy Stryker, founder of the photography program of the FSA in Washington, D.C. Though an economist, Stryker understood the power of photographs in persuading Congress members to support New Deal legislation. He later worked for Stryker at the Office of War Information as well.
The Standard Oil Penola Grease Plant Photos
In 1944, Stryker, who had moved on to Standard Oil, hired Parks away from the government and sent him to Pittsburgh to photograph the company’s Penola grease plant, as part of the company’s public relations efforts during World War II. The Penola plant, located in the city’s Strip District near downtown, had become a big deal in the war effort, because it produced “Eisenhower grease,” a grade of lubricant that was capable of keeping tanks on the move in the gritty environment of North Africa and elsewhere.
“I think Stryker understood that Parks had a skill set that would allow him to understand and relate to the workers in this plant, and really capture the story of the manufacturing through those individuals,” Leers says.
The hot, pungent environment was difficult for Parks to work in. “Photographing the grease plant at Pittsburgh was a pretty nasty job,” Parks wrote to Stryker in 1944. “It was nasty because in every building and on every floor grease was underfoot. 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.”
Parks’ grease plant photographs are prime examples of his methodical style. Unlike, say, Henri Cartier-Bresson, a contemporary who focused upon capturing what he called “the decisive moment” on film, Parks didn’t leave anything to chance. He carefully staged his images, posing his subjects and planning lighting from multiple sources. “He’s very actively using the technical skills with the camera to achieve what he wants to see in his photograph,” Leers says.
But that didn’t mean that Parks’ images were any less true. Before he shot any film, he spent a lot of time talking with and observing his subjects, learning about what they did in their jobs. He photographed grease plant workers in their workplaces, dressed in their work uniforms and holding the tools that they used every day. “There’s a dialogue between the photographer and the subject,” Leers says. “You usually don’t have that with a photojournalist. They’re usually either the fly on the wall, or just passing through. Parks gets to know these individuals … and he’s taking the time to really portray them in the light that he wants to see them, but probably also in the light that they wanted to see themselves. I think a lot of these guys probably were very proud of the fact that they’d been photographed by him.”
One of his most iconic images, shown at left, depicts a Black worker in the cooper’s room, surrounded by steam as he hoists a large drum that had been cleaned from a boiling lye vat. Other images show workers rising in a freight elevator and posing solemnly next to gauges on the plant’s machinery.
Parks also subtly worked messages about race relations into his images, to the point where the plant’s management tried unsuccessfully to control who he photographed, so that he wouldn’t focus too much on the Black workers, who had some of the most dangerous and difficult jobs.
“It’s also a credit to Parks that he was able to find moments of camaraderie and partnership between people of different races,” Leers says. “It wasn’t just a matter of Black and white. Parks is such a talent that he’s able to see the nuance, and to photograph grease-makers who are white and black at their jobs, or playing checkers on their lunch break. And I think he also recognized that regardless of their race, a lot of these men were very proud of the work they were doing. Even though they’re not on the front lines of the war, the work they’re doing is actively contributing to the success overseas.”
Parks’ Later Career
Parks spent time in Pittsburgh in March and September 1944 and then returned in 1946. After he’d completed his work there for Standard Oil, he got a freelance assignment from Life magazine in 1948 to photograph a Harlem gang, and eventually was hired as a staff photographer. In his 20-year career at the magazine, his photographic subjects ranged from an impoverished young boy in Rio de Janeiro to Hollywood stars such as Henry Fonda and Ingrid Bergman, as well as Black celebrities ranging from Duke Ellington to Muhammad Ali.
In addition to being a photographer, Parks was involved in an assortment of other artistic endeavors. He wrote poetry, composed a symphony and became the author of a bestselling semi-autobiographical novel, “The Learning Tree.” A studio executive who admired his photography hired him to direct the film version of his book. While he wasn’t the first black director to direct a feature-length film — that would be Oscar Micheaux, back in 1919 — Parks was the first to direct a major Hollywood picture. The film did well enough that in 1971, MGM hired Parks to direct “Shaft.”
Parks continued to break new ground beyond photography, including producing, directing and composing music for a ballet about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1989, and won numerous awards, including the National Medal of the Arts in 1988. He died in 2006. Today, The Gordon Parks Foundation is dedicated to preserving his legacy.
“Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946” will be on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from April 30 through Aug. 7, 2022. Please visit the website for details.