Gordon Parks was one of the most groundbreaking figures in 20th century photography. His photojournalism during the 1940s to the 1970s reveals important aspects of American culture, and he became known for focusing on issues of civil rights, poverty, race relations and urban life.
The youngest of 15 children, Parks was born into poverty and segregation in 1912 in Kansas and throughout his early life was subjected to abject discrimination. It wasn’t until he was 25 that he first picked up a camera. Parks was working as a waiter in a railroad dining car, and was moved to buy his first camera after looking at photographs in the magazines left by customers. The self-taught photographer went from job to job traveling across America to find work and landed on his feet as a freelance photographer at Vogue and soon after as a staff photographer at LIFE magazine. Despite constantly battling ingrained racist attitudes of the time, it was during these years that he produced his most iconic photographic essays.
Here we explore 7 of Parks most well-known images to understand his impact not only as a documentary photographer but as an activist.
1. American Gothic (1942)
This is probably Parks’ most recognizable image and depicts African-American woman Ella Watson, who was a cleaner at the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Parks was also working there having won a photography fellowship it ran as a way to "introduce America to Americans". Parks found himself documenting older generations of African-Americans to find out how they dealt with the daily torrent of racism that he himself was encountering having moved to segregated Washington.
The photograph is a direct parody of artist Grant Wood’s iconic 1930s painting of the same title. It was a challenge aimed at the treatment of African Americans by highlighting the inequality in the so-called “Land of the Free” and the image came to symbolize life in pre-civil-rights America.
2. Esther Dorothy's Muskrat Fur Fashion (1948)
Parks' first foray into fashion photography was for a women’s store in Minnesota. After his fellowship at the FSA, Parks renewed his search of jobs in the fashion world. Moving to New York, he soon became a freelance for photographer for Vogue during Alexander Liberman’s editorship. His first assignment for the magazine was to shoot a collection of evening gowns.
For the next few years he developed his own distinctive style of fashion photography, which involved photographing his models in motion rather than poised, a technique that was soon heavily emulated.
3. Red Jackson (1948)
This striking image is taken from Parks’ photographic essay about a young Harlem gang leader called Red Jackson. The series was published in America’s leading photographic publication, LIFE magazine, which ultimately won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer there.
Red Jackson is pictured here as he ponders his next move having been “trapped in an abandoned building by a rival gang”. Parks spent 4 weeks following the 17-year-old leader around Harlem and the series highlights the violence and hardship these teenagers were exposed to.
4. Emerging Man (1952)
This image is inspired by Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man which came out the same year. Ellison’s novel is about an African-American man whose color renders him invisible. It addressed many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans in the 20th century. Parks’ image of a figure emerging from a manhole was created in collaboration with Ellison and evokes this sense of emotional isolation. The image appeared in LIFE Magazine, alongside three other images of Parks’, which acted as a visual interpretation of Ellison’s novel.
5. Outside Looking In (1956)
In 1956, 26 color photographs belonging to Parks were published in LIFE under the title The Restraints: Open and Hidden, which exposed Americans to the effects of racial segregation. Parks focused his attention on the Thornton family (pictured above) from Alabama and he captured their everyday struggles to overcome discrimination.
This series is one of Parks’ earliest social documentary studies on color film. It looks considerably different to other photographic studies on the same subject matter at the time. Rather than focus on the demonstrations and brutality that seemed to embody the battle for racial justice, Parks focused on the prosaic details of one family’s life to draw out the human aspect.
6. Flavio Da Silva (1961)
During the 60s, Parks chronicled the life of a young boy named Flavio Da Silva, struggling to survive in a Brazilian slum. On assignment for LIFE, Parks arrived in Brazil in 1961 with the aim to document Latin Americans living in extreme poverty. He soon met 12-year-old Flavio living in Catacumba favela – he was the oldest of 8 children and charged with taking care of his siblings while his parents tried to make a living selling kerosene and bleach. Flavio, who suffered from asthma, was the embodiment of everything Parks was trying to portray with the unshaking honesty of his lens.
The series became one of the best-known essays published by the magazine and inspired an outpouring of letters and donations from the American public.
7. The Fontenelles at the Poverty Board (1967)
This images forms part of a series called, A Harlem Family, which Parks worked on for LIFE and focuses on the life of the Fontenelle family. Parks was asked by his editors to explain why the nation’s inner cities were falling apart and the photographer felt it was down to two things: racism and poverty. To bring these issues to life, Parks once again focused on the daily lives of an impoverished black family.
During the first week of the assignment, after asking parents Norman and Bessie for permission to photograph the family, Parks initially left his camera at home. Opting to get to know the family and allowing them to become comfortable with his presence. As a result as series of candid and intimate images were created, once again demonstrating Parks' ability to tell the most difficult stories.