It's hard to overestimate the importance of Gordon Parks in the history of American photography. This isn't just because for over two decades ('40s, '50s, and into the '60s) he was the only African-American working within the mainstream of the photographic profession. It's also because of the extraordinarily beautiful and challenging photos that he made as a photojournalist, documentarian, and fashion photographer. Parks did much more than make pictures, of course. He was also a fine writer (his autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree, has an honored place in the American literary canon); a successful filmmaker (his movie Shaft is the mutha of all blaxploitation films); and a pretty fair composer.
In January 1942, when he arrived in Washington, DC, to join Roy Stryker's epic Farm Security Administration [FSA] documentary project, he was none of these things. He married (with two kids), nearly 30, almost broke, and had been a serious photographer for only three years. On the other hand, few people could have matched his ambition, talent, and capacity for hard work.
Gordon Parks: New York, New York. Dock stevedores at the Fulton fish market sending up baskets of fish from the holds of the boats to the docks where it is bought, stored in barrels and packed in ice for delivery to wholesalers. 1943. (All the photographs in this entry are from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information [FSA/OWI] Collection at the Library of Congress. Click directly on any of the images to see larger versions.)
In a 1964 interview, Parks admitted that he didn't have much to offer the FSA as a photographer. He was there to learn, and he and Stryker, his new boss, both knew it: "I think that I was sort of a noble experiment for Roy."
If that was the case, it wasn't simply because Parks was the first and only African-American photographer on the FSA staff. Stryker had often taken chances with aspiring photographers, and they had always paid off. Many that Stryker had hired (or was to hire) -- Russell Lee, Esther Bubley, Arthur Rothstein -- were inexperienced but eager. They were experiments that turned out well. Though not a photographer himself, Stryker was as much a teacher as he was a manager. Parks was, in this sense, yet another student in his finishing school for photographers.
(It is true, however, that Stryker, fearing the reaction of southern members of Congress to the hiring of a black man, had been reluctant to take Parks on and was cajoled into it by representatives of the liberal Rosenwald Fund, which funded Parks's appointment.)
Gordon Parks: New York, New York. Fulton fish market street scene. 1943.
Parks's work for Stryker at the FSA and, after late 1942, the Office of War Information [OWI] was highly uneven, ranging from the sublime to the merely competent. That's no surprise, really. In his book Half Past Autumn, Parks called his stay at the FSA/OWI his "apprenticeship."
One of the first photos that he made at the FSA became one of his most famous: his portrait of Ella Watson, a charwoman in a government office building, which was part of a superb series documenting Watson's life and her struggle to raise her grandchildren.
In contrast, the photos that he made at New York's Fulton Fish Market, in the spring of 1943, show him as the apprentice that he was.
Gordon Parks: New York, New York. Fulton fish market dock stevedores unloading and weighing fish in the early morning. 1943.
None of his Fulton photos rise to the standard his best FSA/OWI work. He didn't include any of them in Half Past Autumn, a career retrospective, even though the book contains nearly 50 pages of photos from his FSA/OWI years. In fact, these photos have rarely been published at all. (I've seen them in none of the magazines of the period, and, of the many books about Parks and about the FSA, I've found them only in Gilles Mora and Beverly W. Brannan's FSA: The American Vision.)
Gordon Parks: New York, New York. Ice which is used to store fish on boats that bring their catches into Fulton fish market. 1943.
The Fulton photos came out of an assignment to document aspects of the American fishing trade, part of a government study of the food industry. The country was at war, and Parks and Stryker were now part of the OWI, an agency with a mission to support the war effort, not social reform. The days of investigating nation's social ills were over.
Gordon Parks: New York, New York. Fulton fish market hooker. 1943.
While none of the photos from Fulton are brilliant, many are strong. Some, such as those at the beginning of this post, capture the market's energy and movement.
Gordon Parks: New York, New York. Dock stevedore at the Fulton fish market holding giant lobster claws. 1943.
Characteristically of Parks, there are several engaging portraits, some leavened with humor.
Gordon Parks: New York, New York. Many of the Fulton fish market men are in the armed forces. 1943.
The war was never far from anyone's mind, and Parks made sure to reinforce that simple truth. (If you click on the photo, you'll see a larger version and be able to read the names of the Fulton Fish Market men who were serving in the armed forces.)
Gordon Parks: New York, New York. Barrels of fish on the docks at Fulton fish market ready to be shipped to retailers. 1943.
It's tempting to try to find something in the Fulton series that anticipates Parks's stylistic signature. Tempting, but futile, I think -- largely because it's hard to identify a stylistic signature in his protean body of work beyond, perhaps, an affinity for portraiture. It's hard to imagine keywords or a catch phrase that can sum up his style, as we can for his contemporaries Henri Cartier-Bresson (elegant geometry), Walker Evans (Protestant austerity, artful artlessness), and Roy DeCarava (intimacy, murky depths).
Gordon Parks: New York, New York. Shipping fish by horse-drawn vehicle from Fulton fish market. 1943.
We can see, however, Parks developing his skills at producing a photo-essay. At Life magazine, during the '50s and '60s (where he was once again the first and only black photographer) he became one of the great masters of the form. (See, for instance, the still important 1963 story that he both wrote and photographed about what were then called the Black Muslims.)
Unknown photographer: Gordon Parks, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photographer, standing in office with Helen Wool seated at desk. Ca. 1943.
We should understand the Fulton Fish Market series for what it is, the skillfully executed project of an apprentice. That's very likely the way that Parks saw it. "I wish," he said in 1964, looking back at his time at the FSA/OWI, "...I stayed there longer and gotten there earlier."
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N.B.: Because the photos in this entry were made by photographers employed by the United States government, they are not eligible for copyright protection.