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Too Hot to Handle

Taken at the start of his multifaceted career, Gordon Parks' photograph of a Washington, D.C. worker was so inflammatory it was buried for decades

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Parks knew Grant Wood’s 1930 painting, American Gothic, of a farmer, holding a pitchfork, and his daughter. The young photographer arranged Watson in a similar tableau.

When Stryker saw the photograph, he told Parks, "You’ve got the right idea, but you’re going to get us all fired!" The agency’s work publicizing the plight of African-Americans in the South was already riling some Southern conservatives. So Stryker filed the picture away. Parks took more FSA pictures of Watson—at home, with her adopted daughter and grandchildren—before he lost touch with her.

He went on to a career as a photographer (at Vogue and also Life, where I worked with him in the 1960s) before he won further acclaim as an author, composer, painter and filmmaker (1971’s Shaft!).

Some three decades after taking American Gothic, as Parks remembers it today, he picked up a newspaper on an airplane and was shocked to see the photograph. "I took a flight down to Washington and went to the FSA archives," he says. "A black kid was taking care of the files, and he sneaked me in and got me the negative." Stryker (who died in 1975) "didn’t destroy it," Parks continues. "But it was tucked down at the bottom, I’ll tell you that!"

In 1997, a few of Ella Watson’s grown grandchildren delighted Parks by showing up at a retrospective exhibition of his work at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art. The gallery’s senior photography curator, Philip Brookman, says Parks has an unusual "ability to connect with people across the divides—rich and poor, black and white—and to translate these moments into memorable visual icons."

Parks, who lives in Manhattan, is still painting and writing—he just published The Sun Stalker, a novel about 19th-century English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner—and he remains passionate about taking photographs. His work lives up to a vision I heard him express more than three decades ago, as we talked shop in the Life photographer’s lounge with staff photographers Alfred Eisenstaedt and Eliot Elisofon.

"I don’t like to work with assistants," Eisenstaedt said, "because I am already one too many. It would be better if the camera could work itself, operated by an invisible hand."

Elisofon said, "The ideal would be to push the film in one ear, blink your eye, and take the film out the other ear."

Parks saw it differently. "Rather than have the film run through my ears," he said, "I’d prefer to have it run through my heart, and see what happens."

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