Each week, we bring you the backstory of a work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.

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Ella Watson, Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman, 1942

by Poppy Simpson, Head of Curation

Before he was the first African-American photojournalist for LIFE, or the pioneering film director of ‘Shaft’, Gordon Parks was a young photographer for the New Deal government agency, the Farm Security Administration (FSA). It was here that the roots of Parks’ later work were formed and where he took what has become his signature image, American Gothic, a photograph of a Washington D.C. charwoman (an old-fashioned term for a cleaning lady), Ella Watson, that references Grant Wood’s painting of the same name.

Gordon Parks bought his first camera in a Seattle pawnshop for $12.50 at the age of 25. Raised in Kansas, Parks had spent his teenage years moving around the country as a jazz band member and dining car waiter, but the purchase of a Voigtländer Brilliant in 1937 heralded a new focus on photography and, although he did not know it yet, activism: “I had bought what was to become my weapon against poverty and racism”, he later recalled.

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Young Boy Standing in the Doorway of his Home, 1942

This weapon was put to use on the streets of Washington D.C in the early 1940s, after Parks was awarded the Julius Rosenwald fellowship and chose to join Roy Stryker’s documentary photography division at the FSA. He had studied and admired the work of the agency’s earlier photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, and Walker Evans, and he followed in their footsteps, capturing images of predominantly working class life in church, on the streets and at the docks. But it was Parks’ experience of the capital—a city that he found “bulged with racism”—that had the greatest impact on his work. In his autobiography, Voices in the Mirror, Parks recalled: “Eating houses shooed me to the back door; theaters refused me a seat, and the scissoring voices of white clerks at Julius Garfinckel’s prestigious department store riled me with curtness. Some clothing I had hoped to buy went unbought. They just didn’t have my size—no matter what I wanted.”

One day very soon after his arrival in Washington, an angry Parks spoke to Stryker about the striking bigotry and discrimination that he had encountered in the city. His mentor encouraged him to draw on this frustration and experience in his photography before leaving for the day. That evening, Parks stayed at the office, alone apart from a black government charwoman. He began to talk to her and she told him a little of her “lifetime of drudgery and despair”. After an hour or so, remembering Styker’s advice, Parks asked her to pose with her mop and broom before a large American flag and to think of their conversation as she looked into his lens. It was his first photograph of Ella Watson, and on seeing it a few days later, Stryker declared it ‘an indictment of America.’

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Parks took many more photographs of Ella Watson (above), photographs that he preferred to American Gothic for their intimacy and nuance. But American Gothic remains one of his most enduring photographs for good reason—a sharp, staged but straightforward image that laid bare the hypocrisy of the freedom and opportunity that the American flag symbolised in the 1940s. For Gordon Parks it was a career defining experience: “I had been forced to take a hard look backward at black history; to realize the burdens of those who had lived through it. Now, I was much better prepared to face up to that history yet to be made.”