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

When Gordon Parks arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1942, he was 29 years old, with a past defined by his black skin and a future in his camera bag. He was starting out as a professional photographer, and his first shot was American Gothic, Washington, D.C., the now famous portrait of cleaning lady Ella Watson holding a mop and a broom and standing in front of an American flag. The image, still a favorite of Parks’ six decades later, has been ranked as one of the most influential photographs of the century.

Parks, one of 15 children, was born into poverty in Fort Scott, Kansas, and came of age in Minneapolis, sleeping in streetcars and playing piano in a brothel. While he was working as a waiter on a train, a picture magazine sparked his interest in photography. He bought a camera at a pawnshop for $12.50 and took pictures of, as he recalls, "anything that came in front of my lens." The first rolls of film he developed, at a local Eastman Kodak store, were so strong the manager exhibited the prints. Parks then photographed black people in the Midwest during the Depression, from tenement dwellers to churchgoers in their Sunday best to the wife of boxing great Joe Louis. An exhibit of his pictures in Chicago in 1941 earned him a job at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, where a host of soon-to-be renowned photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Carl Mydans and Ben Shahn, were at work.

The FSA photographers and their hard-driving boss, Roy Stryker, were documenting the lives of farmers and workers displaced by the nation’s economic collapse. Stryker, greeting Parks for the first time, sized up his latest recruit. "I didn’t know much about Washington," Parks, now 91, recalled recently. "So he gave me my first assignment. I was not to take a camera out. I was to go to a big department store downtown and buy a topcoat, go from there across the street and have lunch and then see a motion picture. And he wanted me to give him a report on it."

The day was emblazoned on Parks’ memory: he was refused at all those places. "How did it go?" Stryker asked him when he returned to the office.

"I think you know how it went," Parks said.

"Yeah, I think I do," Stryker said. "What are you going to do about it?"

"What can I do about it?"

"Well, why did you bring your camera down here?" Stryker said, adding, "Talk to some older black people who have suffered all their lives what you suffered today."

Parks says he approached someone in the FSA building, "a black charwoman by the name of Ella Watson, who was sweeping the floor and mopping. So I introduced myself and asked her if she would talk to me a little bit, and she did, and when she got through telling me all the woes in her family, I asked her: 'Would you pose for me?'"

"In this outfit?" she said.

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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