Pioneering African-American photographer Gordon Parks, who was born in Kansas in 1912, made his reputation traveling the world for Life magazine. But he began his career in Washington on a photo fellowship from the Farm Security Administration in the early 1940s.
“It was really his first professional work as a photographer,” says Philip Brookman, chief curator and head of research at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where “Gordon Parks: Photographs From the Collection” is on view through Jan. 16.
The show draws from more than 300 photos Parks donated to the Corcoran in 1998, eight years before his death in 2006. The gallery timed the exhibition to complement “30 Americans,” a collection of works by contemporary African-American artists that runs through Feb. 12, Brookman says. “I wanted to show the work of a photographer who inspired that work,” he says.
The smaller Parks exhibition opens with a Washington-centric image, 1942’s “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.” The photo depicts Ella Watson, a member of the FSA building’s cleaning crew, in a pose that recalls American painter Grant Wood’s iconic 1930 portrait of a Midwestern farmer and his daughter.
Parks addressed issues of race in his photographs, but he was not always comfortable being confrontational. While “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.” clearly expressed Parks’ indignation at the city’s racial segregation, he felt in later years that the photo was too blunt in its approach. “I learned I couldn’t just make a portrait of a bigot and label it ‘bigot,’” he once said of his overall development as a photographer, according to Brookman.
“Probably the most potent lesson he learned” in Washington, Brookman says, “was that he needed to create an image that was complex.”
Parks befriended Watson and continued to photograph her. In fact, Brookman says, he started seeing relationship-building as a creative technique. “He learned to take the time to get to know people.”
This approach served Parks well in his later work for Life, gaining him access to subjects such as young victims of extreme poverty in Brazil, gang leaders in Harlem and leaders of the civil rights movement across America.
Parks — who later branched out into writing, music and film directing (1971’s “Shaft”) — may have started as an outsider, but he turned that into a strength, Brookman says. “He was able to photograph subjects that other photographers might not have been able to.”Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW; through Jan. 16; 202-639-1700. (Farragut West)