Favorite Pics – Gordon Parks’ American Gothic

Posted on December 30, 2012


One of the things I like is collecting photographs that have some element of historical or artistic interest for me personally. From time to time, I’ll post some of these photos here.

                       “Ella Watson” by Gordon Parks, 1942

GordonParks - Ella Watson - 1942

Gordon Parks’ American Gothic

In 1942, groundbreaking African-American photographer Gordon Parks went to work for the Farm Security Administration in Washington, DC. Born in Kansas, but raised in Minnesota, Parks was unprepared for the depths of prejudice that characterized the nation’s capitol at that time. He later said that “discrimination and bigotry were worse there than any place I had yet seen.” He was moved to use his camera to bring to light the terrible impact such attitudes and practices had on the lives of those victimized by them.

One of his first opportunities to put his determination into practice came when he talked to a woman who made her living cleaning offices in a government building. Her name was Ella Watson, and her hard work paid her a grand salary of $1080 per year. Parks was struck by the fact that one of the offices she cleaned was that of another woman, obviously not black, who “had started work at the same time, with the same accomplishments and education.”

American Gothic - Grant Wood, big

American Gothic – Grant Wood, 1930

In 1930, Iowa artist Grant Wood had produced a painting he called American Gothic, which quickly became an icon of 20th century art. Seen as quintessentially American,  it has achieved world-wide fame, and has been parodied and caricatured probably thousands of times. This is the image that came to Gordon Parks’ mind as he thought of how he could most powerfully tell Ella Watson’s story.

Parks became one of the first, if not the first, to re-purpose Grant Wood’s American Gothic image when he decided to use it to visually represent Ella Watson’s life. The carefully posed photograph Parks took of Watson standing in a flag-draped government office, mop and broom in hand, has achieved prominence in its own right, and throws a different light on what it meant to be an American at that time in the nation’s history. It, too, has come to be known by the unofficial title, American Gothic.

Parks was very moved by Ella Watson’s life story, which he described as a pitiful one. He recounts,

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.

Now, on her meager salary, Ella was raising three grandchildren and an adopted daughter.

Gordon Parks - Ella Watson with three grandchildren and adopted daughter 1942

Ella Watson with three grandchildren and adopted daughter

A major factor that helped Ella Watson cope with the difficulties of her life was her Christian faith, and the church she attended. Parks documented these in several photographs, such as the one below:

Gordon Parks - Ella Watson's pastor Rev Vondell Gassaway preaching Sunday sermon at Saint Martin's Spiritual Church 1942

Ella Watson’s pastor, Rev. Vondell Gassaway, preaching Sunday sermon
at Saint Martin’s Spiritual Church

Gordon Parks considered his portrait of Ella Watson as the very first of his professional career. He recalls that when his boss at the FSA first saw it, he “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 .” Now, that photograph, like the painting it is modeled on, has itself become iconic.

Ella Watson’s story, along with more of Gordon Parks’ photos of her, are documented here.

Here is video of  Gordon Parks telling the American Gothic story.

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks (11/30/1912 – 3/7/2006) was a world famous photographer, musician, writer and film director. He is best known as one of Life Magazine’s most prominent and prolific photographic essayists, and as the director of the 1971 film, Shaft.