When 29-year-old Gordon Parks arrived in Washington, in 1942, to begin his prestigious job as a photographer at the Farm Security Administration, his first assignment was to shoot: nothing. The government agency, which was born of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, had originally intended to highlight rural suffering and the plight of farmers, but that mission quickly expanded to producing a vast visual record of American life. Overseen by Roy Stryker, chief of the photography unit within the agency’s historical section, the collection was a stunning, often sobering artistic vehicle for depicting the ways the government was both serving and failing its citizens. Parks had come to the FSA on a fellowship after being a staff photographer for the St. Paul Recorder newspaper and doing commercial freelance work, but he also hadn’t bought his first camera until 1937, and Stryker knew the photographer still had much to learn.
First, as Parks recounted in his 1966 memoir “A Choice of Weapons,” Stryker had Parks show him his cameras — a Speed Graphic and a Rolleiflex — and promptly locked them in a cabinet. “You won’t be needing those for a few days,” the boss said. Instead, he asked his new photographer — who was raised in Kansas but also lived in Minnesota and later in Chicago — to eat in some restaurants, shop in stores, take in a movie. “Get to know this place,” he told him.
This was hardly what Parks had in mind for his first day, and, deflated, he set off on foot. It took no time for Parks, the first African American photographer to join the FSA, to collide with the reality Stryker knew awaited him. When he stopped in a drugstore for breakfast, a waiter, at the very sight of him, snapped, “Get off of that stool. Don’t you know colored people can’t eat in here?” Soon after, still shaken by the encounter, Parks wandered up to a movie theater to buy a ticket — and got a similar admonishment. “Colored people can’t go in here,” the attendant told him. “You should know that.”
Next, Parks strolled into the famed department store Garfinkel’s, and by now he understood he was likely in for more of the same. He was right: Not one of the salesmen would sell him a camel-hair coat.
Stryker wouldn’t be shocked by any of this, but he was surprised to see Parks stalk back just a few hours later. “I want my cameras,” Parks announced. Stryker asked what he intended to do with them.
“I want to show the rest of the world what your great city of Washington, D.C., is really like,” Parks replied. It was the right impulse, but first Stryker wanted him to study the department’s file photos by the photographers who’d come before him — and who were already well on their way to becoming some of the most important documentary photographers of the 20th century: Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, John Vachon and Russell Lee among them. So Parks spent a few weeks poring through the massive archives. The panorama included train yards, hamburger stands, city slums, burlesque houses, dust storms, funerals, employment agencies, public beaches, parades, pool halls, state fairs, swimming holes, front porches, as well as cotton pickers, factory workers, fishermen, beggars, Salvation Army musicians, medicine salesmen, miners, mayors, farmers, car salesmen, protesters, rodeo clowns, schoolchildren, teachers and preachers. Black and white and immigrants. The well-heeled and penniless. The proud and the broken.
When Parks finally began roaming Washington with camera in hand, he would prove that not only were his skills on par with the agency’s roster of astounding talent, but also that, as a black photographer, he would be a uniquely qualified witness to the daunting struggles of black Americans, as well as to their resiliency and grace. In this way, he would be a crucial interpreter.
At the National Gallery of Art, the exhibition “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950” reveals the budding development of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. The exhibit’s startling breadth of images includes disquieting scenes of societal neglect and inequity alongside lyrical street photography, plus formal portraiture of such towering figures as Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and Ingrid Bergman amid pictures of fashion models and haute couture.
The 1940s would usher in a series of firsts for African Americans — in 1945 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. became New York’s first black congressman; Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color line in 1947 — but when Parks landed in Washington the Jim Crow laws of the South were in force in all corners of the capital. When black soldiers returned home from World War II, the reception was often disgraceful. The race riots of 1943 in Detroit; Mobile, Ala.; and Beaumont, Tex., the continuance of lynchings, just to name a few of the rampant injustices, would test anew the will of black Americans. Now that he was in D.C., Parks — who had suffered his own assaults, insults and harassment because of the color of his skin — was about to show that he had a particular mastery for creating pictures of the black community that were at once haunting and hauntingly beautiful.
From the beginning of his brief tenure with the FSA, Parks demonstrated a cinematic drama and narrative tension in the way he composed his pictures. In one of those early images, Parks presents a boy, seen from behind, who has lost a leg after being hit by a streetcar, as two girls study him from across the street. The boy has taken the first steps from the shadows of his house into the sunlight, but how far can he go? How hard will his journey be in the minutes ahead? In the years to come in segregated Washington?
After Parks had shot for a few weeks, Stryker encouraged him to go deeper into a subject. As it turned out, he didn’t even have to leave the building. Stryker suggested he talk to the cleaning woman working her evening shift, to see what Parks could learn about her life. The woman’s name was Ella Watson, and her story, as he would write later, was wrenching: Her father was killed by a lynch mob; her husband was accidentally shot two days before their daughter was born. That daughter had two children by the time she was 18 and died shortly after the second birth. Watson, who’d been denied a chance for advancement, lived on an annual salary of $1,080 while raising an adopted daughter. Parks quickly created a somber portrait of her holding a broom, with a mop positioned behind her, in front of an American flag turned vertical. It would go on to be Parks’s signature shot, and one of the most iconic of the era, but Stryker was uneasy with the droll irony of the picture — the thick stripes of the flag resembled bars on a cage. He urged Parks to go deeper, to document. So Parks spent weeks following Watson around at work, sitting in her home, following her to church.
That intensely focused and intimate project would be a useful foundation for the first photo essay he did for Life magazine in 1948. (He’d be the first black photographer hired there, a year later.) This time, Parks spent weeks shadowing a 17-year-old Harlem gang leader named Leonard “Red” Jackson. But the teen was no straightforward hooligan. He was a former Golden Gloves boxer — skills that came in handy in gang fights — and he kept the activities of his gang, the Midtowners, 20 blocks from his mother’s neighborhood, according to the essay’s text, so she could walk her dog in peace. Parks attended gang meetings, observed a gang rumble, watched Jackson cleaning up the kitchen at home and duking it out with his “war counselor” for leadership. He followed along as Jackson met with a detective who was mentoring the teenager, and Parks was there, too, for a publicity stunt that saw Jackson — who had been named, oddly enough, “boy mayor of Harlem” for a day — waving to a crowd from a convertible.
The shoot wasn’t without its dangers: When Jackson and some fellow Midtowners spotted a group of boys Jackson believed was coming after them, they took refuge in an empty house, relying on bricks strewn about the floor for their defense and waiting out their enemies. In one of those images, Jackson gazes through a window’s remaining shards of glass, surveying the chances of getting out safely, but in the way Parks frames his weary face mostly in shadow, Jackson could just as easily be surveying his seemingly dark future. (In fact, he lived until 2010.)
Throughout the 1940s, Parks kept honing his documentary approach: He worked for the Office of War Information after it absorbed the FSA, and later for Standard Oil Co. (New Jersey), in addition to freelancing for such publications as Ebony and Glamour as he began to focus more extensively on fashion photography. In 1950, Life assigned him to oversee its photo bureau in Paris for two years. And in the 1960s, book writing and filmmaking would become part of his growing oeuvre. In 1971, Parks would direct “Shaft,” which helped launch the blaxploitation era.
But the seeds of all that work and vision are here in the images from 1940 to 1950. The defeat of Germany in World War II brought profound change to much of the world, yet in America change for people of color came at an excruciating pace. As U.S. soldiers returned stateside, settled back into their work and tried to resume the old rhythms of their lives, the civilian’s camera aimed at the sins of inequality became a chief weapon of consequence.
David Rowell is the deputy editor of The Washington Post Magazine.