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Understanding History using a Photographer’s Body of Work

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This post is by Mary Ellen Hawkins, the Teaching with Primary Sources Intern at the Library of Congress.

Exploring a collection of images created by a single photographer can engage students. They can make discoveries about a period of history and make connections to their own lives.

Using photographs from Gordon Parks, a famous American photographer and the only Black photographer hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), is a good place to start. The online collections of the Library of Congress include several documentary photography projects that Parks worked on during his time at the FSA in the early 1940s. Parks used his camera to expose bigotry and injustice in American life. In an interview in 2000, he said:

The pictures that I made that have become the most important pictures, were pictures that I wish I never had to take. They were people who were impoverished, people in need. I suppose I pointed my camera at people mostly who needed someone to say something for them, they couldn’t speak for themselves.”

A starting approach could be to emphasize personal meaning-making and connections by directing students to select an image which appeals to them. Invite them to look closely at their chosen image, take notes on their observations, and share with classmates what connections they made to their own lives. This method would encourage individual analysis and sharing with peers. Use the activity Connecting with Primary Sources to guide your approach.

After making personal connections to images, student might then dive into the historical context of the collection. Analyzing Gordon Parks’ photographs can tie into various multi-disciplinary topics and historical themes. Challenge your students to identify themes and make cross-connections between images using his body of work.

For teachers, here are some examples from Parks’ photography which offer some avenues for research into the following topics:

  • His series featuring Ella Watson, a cleaning woman who worked in the FSA building when Parks was there, attempted to expose the racism and inequality entrenched in Washington, DC during the 1940s.
  • He photographed neighborhood businesses, people at work. and neighborhood life in Washington, DC.
  • Parks often entered the homes of his subjects to take multi-generational photographs and highlight family life.

    Woman holding a broom and a mop standing in front of an American Flag
    Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman. Also known as American Gothic. Gordon Parks, 1942

    Gentleman working in a store he owns
    Mr. J. Benjamin, Owner of a Grocery Store. Gordon Parks, 1942

    Picture of Mary Machado, her mother, daughter, grandchild and great grandchild
    Mary Machado and her mother, daughter and grandchild and great grandchild Gordon Parks, 1943

Encourage students to drive their discussion and analysis using their own observations, reflections, and questions. Some sample discussion questions may include:

  • Based on these images, what can you determine about life in Washington, DC in the 1940s?
  • Why do you think Parks chose to document these particular scenes?
  • What overarching themes do you notice in Gordon Parks’ photography?

Analyzing a photographer’s collection can help students practice their research skills, their visual literacy skills, and make connections across images. History classrooms may use this to investigate historical events or to discuss social issues, Visual arts classrooms can use this to analyze a photographer’s style or perspective, and English language classrooms can connect images to books they are reading.

How would you use Parks’ work with your students?

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  1. Mary Ellen, Thank you for shining a spotlight on this important work! And thank you for the practical teaching ideas.

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