Posts Tagged ‘Gordon Parks’
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.
Iconic Photos looks back at one of the most powerful photoessays of the last century.
On June 16th 1961 appeared in Life magazine an eight-page spread entitled, “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty.” The piece was hastily put together after the Secretary of State Dean Rusk denounced Latin American poverty as radicalizing influence towards Communism in a New York Times article the weekend before.
That summer, Life had sent its first African American photographer, Gordon Parks, to South America to cover one part of a five-part series on “Crisis in Latin America.” There Parks met a 12-year-old boy named Flavio da Silva who, with his poverty-stricken parents and their eight other children, lived in Catacumba favela (slum) in the hills outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Parks had put together a powerful essay featuring Flavio’s severe asthma attacks, his large family sleeping in one bed, and other horrendous conditions in the favelas. The story was to be severely truncated (with Parks threatening to resign if the editors do so) when Rusk’s article rescued it.
The photoessay elicited a huge emotional response from the readers; letters poured into the magazine’s offices. Many contained money; others included offers to adopt the boy. The Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital in Denver arranged for Flavio to be brought to its facilities — where he would be treated for free — with President Kennedy himself intervening to expedite the visa process.
So it was an uplifting story of photographs affecting change. Maybe. Iconic Photos is more skeptical. Using its readers’ donations, Life set up a $300,000 fund for Catacumba, but the local resident association only built cement stairs. The rest of the donations simply disappeared. In 1961, there were 205 favelas in Rio, housing a population of at least 700,000 people. Today there are twice as many favelas, and estimates of their population range from 700,000 to 2 million. While many Brazilian magazines took up the cause of poverty after Life, their efforts were short-lived. One, O Cruziero, however, was so outraged by Parks’ coverage that it sent reporters to New York City’s slums; unfamiliar with the city, the reporters ended up in the Wall Street and staged a few shots with a random Puerto Rican family.
(Read here a pdf excerpt from Park’s autobiography about meeting Flavio).
Swedish beauty Ingrid Bergman was one of the top stars of the 1940s (Casablanca, Gaslight, Notorious), but her career in the U.S. derailed in 1949 when she left her husband and daughter for the Italian director Roberto Rossellini. She was working with Rossellini for the film Stromboli when she became pregnant. It was a huge scandal in the United States. Bergman was denounced on the Senate floor by Edwin C. Johnson (D-Colorado), who referred to her as “a horrible example of womanhood and a powerful influence for evil.” In a floor vote that followed, she was declared persona non grata. The scandal forced Bergman to exile herself to Italy, leaving her husband, Dr. Petter Lindström, who eventually sued her for desertion and waged a custody battle for their daughter.
During Bergman’s anguished time in Italy, anger over her private life had continued unabated in the United States, with Ed Sullivan at one point infamously polling his TV show audience as to whether she should be permitted to appear on his show. Although the audience was mostly in favor, Ed declined to book her. Bergman could not work in an American film for seven years, though upon her return, in 1956, she won an Oscar for Anastasia. In 1972, Senator Charles H. Percy (R-Illinois) lodged a formal apology into the Congressional Record for the attack made on Bergman 22 years earlier by Senator Johnson.
LIFE magazine’s Gordon Parks was her close friend, and Bergman trusted him to the extent that she invited him to the 1949 shoot for Stromboli— directed by Rossellini, at the time she was perceived as the villain — where he made the above haunting portrait. Parks would later acknowledge that portraits of Bergman and Rossolini during their famous sojourn on the island of Stromboli were one of his most important photoshoots for Life.