Gordon Park's "American Gothic", his 1942 shot of Ella Watson, a black government charwoman mopping floors in the Farm Security Administration (FSA) building, became his "signature image" and "the symbol of the pre-civil rights era's treatment of minorities" (via). Parks went to Washington, D.C. on a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund which was dedicated to research about the South. Since he had long admired the FSA photographs, he decided to spend his fellowship year as an apprentice photographer there.He arrived in Washington D.C. in 1942 with the plan to document the African-American community - a rather difficult plan. Roy Stryker, director of his FSA section, told him to leave his camera in the office and visit shops, restaurants, and theatres ... At theses places, Parks was refused service. He returned to the office and later said: "In this radiant, historic place racism was rampant." A few weeks later, he told Stryker that he was still looking for a way to capture intolerance with his photographs. Stryker pointed out a charwoman and told Parks: "Go have a talk with her." And.that was exactly what Parks did. He approached Ella Watson, the charwoman who was cleaning the FSA office, talked to her and asked her if he could take her picture (via).
My first photograph of [Watson] was unsubtle. I overdid it and posed her, Grant Wood style, before the American flag, a broom in one hand, a mop in the other, staring straight into the camera. Stryker took one look at it the next day and fell speechless.Through Ella Watson, the black charwoman who had struggled alone after her parents' death, whose father had been killed by a lynch mob, who had become pregnant during high school, whose husband had been accidentally shot dead two days before their second daughter was born, who had lost two children and who was then working to support herself and the two grandchildren, Gordon Parks "gained an intimate perspective on the reality of life for black beyond the historical gleam of white Washington, D.C.". For four months she gave him access to her home and her community where he took a series of photographs (via and via).
"Well, how do you like it?" I asked eagerly.
He just smiled and shook his head. "Well?" I insisted.
"Keep working with her. Let's see what happens," he finally replied. I followed her for nearly a month--into her home, her church, and wherever she went. "You're learning," Stryker admitted when I laid the photographs out before him late one evening. "You're showing you can involve yourself in other people. This woman has done you a great service. I hope you understand this." I did understand. (literally via)
"Culminating this series is the photograph titled American Gothic, in which Watson poses coolly with a mop and broom in front of the U.S. flag. Among the most famous pictures Parks ever took, it points to the complexity of his mature style. Not only does the photograph connect the intimacy of one person’s life with a national state of affairs, it also engages with a larger history of American images by referring to and reinterpreting Grant Wood’scelebrated 1930 painting of the same name." (literally via)
More: The Library of Congress has a collection of Ella Watson's photographs; leaving for work at 4.30 p.m., cleaning a government office at night, view from her window, her adopted daughter, with her three grandchildren, etc.
- photographs of Ella Watson by Gordon Parks via and via
- Jenkins Johnson Gallery via
- Library of Congress via