“Gordon Parks: The New Tide” Features African American Photography Pioneer’s Early Works

Gordon Parks, “Washington, D.C. Government charwoman,” July 1942. Gelatin silver print mounted to board with typewritten caption, sheet. Prints and Photographs

Custodian Ella Watson stares straight at the camera through her wire-rimmed glasses. With a broom in one hand and mop in the other, Watson stands in front of a large American flag. This black-and-white photograph, “Government Chairwoman: Washington D.C.,” by Gordon Parks, is printed on the central wall of a newly opened exhibit at the Addison Gallery of American Art. The exhibit, entitled “Gordon Parks: The New Tide,” and curated by Philip Brookman, Consulting Curator at the National Gallery of Art, opened on February 1.

“The flag at the time was a real symbol of freedom and patriotism, as it would be today. Yet, the cleaning woman holding her broom in front of the flag, looking almost directly at the viewer, sets up an ironic juxtaposition of a black woman who wasn’t free, couldn’t vote at the time, couldn’t advance in her job because she was black. So I think that’s a very powerful statement, posing her in front of the symbol,” said Brookman.

The exhibition follows Parks’ artistic journey from his beginnings in independent portraiture in St. Paul, Minn., until his work as the first African American staff photographer for Life Magazine. A curator tour of the gallery was given this past Sunday, attracting both students and professional photographers alike.

“The way that I developed the exhibition, I wanted it to be a coherent look at the beginning of this amazing artist’s career, and so I decided to organize it in five sections. Each tells something about what he had done in the 1940s. I think it shows a progression in Parks’ work, from the time he was really a self-taught photographer working for himself until he developed to become the first African American staff photographer at Life Magazine in early 1949,” said Brookman.

According to Brookman, Parks took the “Government Chairwoman” photograph after developing a personal relationship with Watson. Brookman explained that Parks was only able to produce his poignant images through an acute understanding of the people he photographed.

“I think in some ways his most important influence is in his ability to get close with people and his understanding that in order to do that, you have to get to know them really well. Often he wouldn’t bring a camera when he began working on a project. He would just simply meet people and get to know them and gain their trust,” said Brookman.

Through his early pictures, Parks not only provided commentary on race relations in the 1940s, but also attempted to promote equality during a time of segregation, according to street photographer and attendee Jourdan Christopher. He commented on the continuity present across the various demographics that Parks captured.

“[Parks depicts] humility and universality to the human experience. I don’t see too much of a difference between his portrayal of people of color versus non-people of color. There’s a constant element in the energy that he captures just across the board, capturing the human experience,” said Christopher.

Professional photographer Michael Lutch, who also attended the curator tour, commented on how impressive it was that the exhibit featured Parks’ original prints, given that the technology Parks would have used at that time is extinct today.

“I think what’s super is that the show is composed of original prints or older prints, so the chemistry and the papers aren’t available today. If you were to make those prints from negatives today, they wouldn’t look as good as the ones that are in the show,” said Lutch.

According to Brookman, Parks’ childhood influenced what he decided to photograph and the lens through which he decided to do so. Parks lost his mother at the age of 15 and lived in poverty for most of his early life. Allison Kemmerer, Interim Director of the Addison, commented on Parks’ use of the camera as his response to the social, political, and cultural issues of his time.

Kemmerer said, “I think the overarching theme is the power of photography to effect change. When [Parks] decided to become a photographer, it was because he was blown away with what he saw as the power of photography to solicit empathy and make us go beyond the boundaries of our existence to understand the plight of other people.”