American; b. Fort Scott, Kans., 1912–d. New York City, 2006
American Gothic, Washington, D.C.
43 9/16 x 31 7/8 in. (110.6 x 81 cm)
The Gordon Parks Collection
© The Gordon Parks Foundation
Across his careers as an artist, a filmmaker, and an author, Gordon Parks consistently worked to expose racism, poverty, crime, segregation, and other social ills that existed in American society. A self-taught photographer, Parks got his start in 1942 when he earned a fellowship to work for a New Deal government agency called the Farm Security Administration (FSA). He moved to Washington, D.C. and documented the African-American community and the intolerance that they encountered around the city. His best-known photographs from this period feature Ella Watson, a government charwoman employed by the FSA, who Parks befriended and chronicled. In American Gothic, Washington, D.C., Parks posed Watson with her mop and broom in an image derived from Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic, 1930. Standing firmly before the American flag, and looking directly at the camera, Watson signifies how African Americans living in segregation during this era did not possess the freedoms and opportunities symbolized by the flag in the background. When Parks first showed the image to Roy Stryker, his mentor at the FSA, Stryker responded, “Well, you’re getting the idea, but you’re going to get us all fired.” Parks went on to become the first African American staff photographer for Life.