In 1942, Gordon Parks went to work for the Farm Security Administration in Washington, DC. The American capital back then was a cesspool of bigotry. Parks had to enter restaurants and theatres through the back door. Even the federal government participated; the new war office then being built on the other side of the Potomac had separate eating and lavatorial arrangements for blacks and whites.
On his first day, Park took the photo of Ella Watson was a black charwoman who mopped floors in the FSA building. Park recounted how she was paid $1,080 annually (around $15,000 today), how one of the offices she cleaned was that of a white woman who had started work at the same time and with very similar qualifications, how she was raising three grandchildren and an adopted daughter on her meagre salary.
Parks remembered: “She had struggled alone after her mother had died and her father had been killed by a lynch mob. She had gone through high school, married and become pregnant. Her husband was accidentally shot to death two days before their daughter was born. By the time the daughter was eighteen, she (the daughter) had given birth to two illegitimate children, dying two weeks after the second child’s birth. What’s more, the first child had been striken with paralysis a year before its mother died.”
He took the photo to his boss at the FSA (legendary Roy Stryker, who oversaw a stellar team of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Carl Mydans and many more at the FSA). Stryker “told me I’d gotten the right idea but was going to get all the FSA photogs fired, that my image of Ella was ‘an indictment of America.’ I thought the image had been killed but one day there it was, on the front page of The Washington Post.”
Soon, the photo came to be known as American Gothic, after the iconic 1930 painting by Grant Wood. Parks had the painting in mind when he carefully posed Watson in front of a flag-draped office, with mop and broom in hand. It was one of the first photos he took on his way to becoming the Jackie Robinson of photography.