This post is by Caneisha Mills, the 2022-2023 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.
The life and experience of Gordon Parks ensure his photographs speak to a range of audiences and help others perceive the world as he viewed it. In an article for the March/April 2023 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, I explored Gordon Parks’ photography, as summarized in the Library’s blog for teachers. This post extends this exploration by sharing ways you can explore Gordon Parks’ works at home with the young people in your life.
Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912. His early life was marked by poverty. His transition from a life of obscurity to famous photographer parallels key turning points in history, specifically World War II and the Civil Rights movement.
After holding several jobs, including working as a waiter and piano player, Parks became a self-taught photographer. When he was merely thirty years old, he was hired the photographic unit of the Farm Security Administration, and later by the Office of War Information. The FSA was a government project tasked with helping and documenting those struggling in poverty in rural America. Several photographers from the FSA later worked as documentary photographers for the Office of War Information, and the visual archives of both agencies are held in the FSA/OWI collection in the Prints and Photographs Division.
Gordon Parks’ work reveals how photographs can transform what an audience sees into a deeper conversation about society and our connection to others. As part of his work with the FSA, Parks took photographs of communities across the country. Some of his 1942 photographs document life in Washington, D.C. His image “A dance group” could lead to an interesting dialogue.
Family Reflection Questions:
- What do you think Parks wanted to say through this photograph?
- Why do you think Parks photographed these girls?
- What emotions come up after viewing this photograph?
Parks used his camera to document the importance of community, such as his image “Playing in the community sprayer,” from the same neighborhood.
When sharing this photograph with your family, you might ask:
- How old do you think the boy is in the photograph?
- Do you believe Parks attempted to stage the boy before he took the picture?
- Why do you think Parks felt capturing this image was important?
During his time in Washington, D.C., Gordon Parks intentionally documented the uncomfortable parts of life in the nation’s capital. Specifically, his most famous image from the 1940s is of Mrs. Ella Watson, “Washington, D.C. government charwoman.” This photograph of her as a cleaner working in the Farm Security Administration building exposed the racism and discrimination that was prevalent at the time. The portrait is also known as Parks’ American Gothic, in acknowledgment of Grant Wood’s 1930 painting that inspired its creation. Parks followed Watson around Washington, D.C., and shot pictures to gain an understanding of the life of African-Americans living in the city in the 1940s.
The FSA/OWI Black-and-White Negatives collection is part of the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. See pictures taken by Gordon Parks and other photographers documenting American life in the 1930s and 1940s.
Images taken by Gordon Parks and other notable photographers will be part of Library collections available for children and families in The Source: Creative Research Studio for Kids, an education center that will open here at the Library within the next few years. Until then, we offer the following family activities that can help you explore Gordon Parks’ work.
Document your city or hometown by taking photographs.
- Ask a friend, sibling or classmate to do the same
- Compare and contrast your photographs
Create an “At Home” photo exhibition.
- Print out several of Gordon Parks’ photographs
- Print out the titles of the photographs separately
- Try to match the titles with the appropriate photograph
- Place your photographs in any order you think they go in and share with your family
- Write a title and short summary of your photo exhibition
Write a letter.
- Reflect on what you know about Washington, D.C.
- View the photographs taken by Gordon Parks in 1942 and 1943 in the nation’s capital
- Write a letter to a sibling or friend describing Washington, D.C. based on his photographs