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Photo of the Week #125

Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks Washington D.C. (southwest section), November 1942

Washington D.C. (southwest section), November 1942


Gordon Parks arrived in Washington D.C. in the spring of 1942. Operating under the Farm Security Administration’s directive to document the nation’s social conditions, Parks was rudely introduced to the city’s Jim Crow era discrimination. These experiences with racism prompted him to look for subjects that would be more readily available to him, leading him to a fruitful collaboration with Ella Watson, a Black cleaning woman at the FSA offices. His famed portrait of her with her mop in front of the American flag, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., was only the beginning of their partnership; Watson gave Parks access to her home and neighborhood, allowing Parks to photograph the living conditions of Black residents.
Despite the city’s growing population, Black citizens at the time were barred from many residential areas and new housing developments. This led to overcrowding and deteriorating conditions in Black neighborhoods. Parks’s photographs give us a window into the cloistered lives of the city's Black residents, as many still lived without running water and electricity. It’s a testament to Parks’s skill as a photographer that, while his pictures don’t avoid these harsh conditions, he treats his subjects with a warmth and dignity that prevents the images from merely functioning as a social polemic.
This signed vintage print shows two boys entranced by what is surely just a hard day's work for the laborer on view. There’s a universality to their boyish curiosity while the picture also offers social documentation - Parks notes in the title that this was one of many large piles of discarded wood in the district. Parks’s deft composition deepens the picture’s meaning: our eyes are drawn to the boys, standing innocent and alert, and then we follow their gaze, guided by the well placed shadow, landing on the weary looking man. As the only Black photographer to work for the FSA, Parks was instrumental in offering a humanistic portrayal of segregation’s toll, and the need for reforms to discriminatory housing practices.