WKYC Senior Reporter Leon Bibb on Inspiration and Gordon Parks

By Leon Bibb, WKYC Senior Reporter and Commentator

“These early works of Gordon Parks resonate just as much as they did when he first set the aperture of his camera, aimed it, focused on the nation, and fired the shutter.” — Leon Bibb, WKYC Senior Reporter and Commentator.
Leon Bibb, WKYC Senior Reporter and Commentator. Image courtesy WKYC.

When I first viewed the photographs of Gordon Parks, it was usually accompanied by my munching on Cheerios or Corn Flakes. I would enjoy my after-school snack while reading Life magazine, which had come in my parents’ afternoon mail delivery. Among the photographs would be those of Gordon Parks, who had trained his camera on the world and clicked the shutter, stopping life for my elementary school–age eyes to see.

In many instances, I saw myself in the photographs of Parks, who at the time was the only black member of Life’s staff. I saw images that related to the civil rights movement in America, a subject that held my interest because of the increased emphasis on the changing social landscape of the country and how it directly affected my family.

Some of Parks’s pictures, most of which were black and white, were frozen moments in the lives of people who lived in poverty, who dealt with social injustices, or who were striving for a better life — a better America.

“Some of Parks’s pictures, most of which were black and white, were frozen moments in the lives of people who lived in poverty, who dealt with social injustices, or who were striving for a better life — a better America.” — Leon Bibb, WKYC Senior Reporter and Commentator.

In the early 1950s I wasn’t yet interested in television news, but the weekly publication of Life had become part of my after-school routine. Parks’s photographs printed on high-quality paper riveted my eyes in a way that I could almost see movement in the still images.

In some ways Life was television: the photographs often had no borders and would be printed on an entire page width. It was during this time — 1949 to 1969 — that I became aware of the name Gordon Parks. As Life’s only black photographer on staff, he was special to me because I had decided on a career in journalism while I was still in elementary school and Parks had established himself as a leading photojournalist.

Video courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Many of his works from the 1940s are now on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I am pulled into so many of the photographs on display. I am still moved by Parks’s ability to capture a feeling and to tell a story in a single or a series of pictures. In many of the photographs on display, there is almost no need for an explanation of what the viewer is seeing because Parks used his camera in a precise way. “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs,” said Parks. “I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”

Parks became a soldier in the battle against the evils he saw. Armed with his camera, he thrust himself onto the battlefield, wherever it was. In his knapsack of memories, he carried reflections of his own childhood, which he labeled as “poor, miserably so,” but also “beautifully rich with the love of my mother and father.”

Self-Portrait, 1941. Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006). Gelatin silver print; 50.8 x 40.6 cm. Private collection. Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

In many of his photographs, especially those that deal with racism and poverty, it is obvious the man behind the camera understood the hunger of victims who longed for better lives. In front of his camera’s lens were the victims of cruelty, but I get the feeling that in the memory of the photographer were the incidents of his own life, which fueled him into the work he found in the Farm Security Administration in Washington in 1942. From there, Parks became a correspondent for the Office of War Information during World War II.

Then came documentary assignments for Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) and Ebony as well as fashion photography for Glamour before joining Life in 1949. It was his work at Life that caught my attention during the mid-1950s and ’60s as I quietly turned the pages of the publication. Somewhere in me, you will find Gordon Parks because he and his work were among my inspirations for journalism and for clicking the shutter of the still camera. Later would come the nonblinking eye of the television camera. Among the people who drew me into my profession as a journalist was Gordon Parks, whose camera looked at a world that was displayed from border to border on the pages of Life.

The national magazine recognized his eye for capturing pieces of the world and freezing them for viewers to examine. In the exhibition, his 1942 photograph Anacostia, D.C. Frederick Douglass housing project shows a mother preparing a family meal as she looks through a window at children playing outside. Although we do not see the face of the mother, we know how she feels and how her gaze would look as she protectively watches the children.

Anacostia, D.C. Frederick Douglass housing project. Mother watching her children as she prepares the evening meal., June 1942. Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006). Gelatin silver print; 25.4 x 20.3 cm. Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, 013377-C. Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

This mother could have been my mother a few years later when I romped with my friends in my family’s backyard. This is a universal photograph — it could have been taken in any time in the history of humankind.

Parks also captured the loneliness of boys playing amid the poverty of Washington, D.C. There is almost no movement in his frozen image of two boys shooting marbles. I can almost hear the clatter as they propelled the smooth stones with the flicks of their thumbs.

Washington (southwest section), D.C. Two Negro boys shooting marbles in front of their home., November 1942. Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006). Gelatin silver print; 9.2 x 11.7 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the Mundy Companies, 91.67. Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

My father would speak of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and how he rallied to get Americans working again during the Great Depression. Years after Roosevelt’s presidency, my dad still sang the praises of FDR. He remembered photographs of the president in the homes of many blacks. In Parks’s 1942 photograph Negro woman in her bedroom, the woman sits on the side of her bed looking at her own mirrored image; a portrait of President Roosevelt hangs on the wall.

Parks understood that Roosevelt was viewed as a savior for black people who were struggling to escape the troubles of the Depression as well as the horrors of racism. My parents are not in this photograph, of course, but in a way this woman represented black people who dealt with the Depression in varying degrees of severity.

Washington (southwest section), D.C. Negro woman in her bedroom, November 1942. Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006). Gelatin silver print; 35.6 x 27.9 cm. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

Although the photographs in this exhibition represent many years of Parks’s work with government offices, private businesses, and fashion and news magazines, it is the images of black people in various places that move me most. As a black child growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, I had the quest for civil rights foremost in my mind. Television newscasts brought moving pictures into our living room, and I wanted to be a full-fledged part of America, praying for the equal opportunities that had been written into the Constitution but that were not available to me because of my race.

Images of black people striving to better their lives or deal with life’s problems are still part of my thinking. I see his 1941 photograph of the great American poet Langston Hughes, who lived for several years in Cleveland, and I am inspired by what is called The New Tide: Early Work 1940–1950. I am still moved by the old photographs that stare back at me as I gaze into them, my eyes moving slowly over them.

In many ways, this exhibition is part of my bloodstream. Whether relating directly to the photographs or relating through my parents, grandparents, and other ancestors, I see myself.

“In many ways, this exhibition is part of my bloodstream. Whether relating directly to the photographs or relating through my parents, grandparents, and other ancestors, I see myself.” — Leon Bibb, WKYC Senior Reporter and Commentator.

I am brought to tears as I see the 1947 photograph Untitled, Harlem, New York, and I think of the elementary school–aged boy who looks at two baby dolls — one black and one white — presented to him in the hands of a person whose face is not seen. The boy touches the white doll as if to select it. There is no commentary with Parks’s photograph, but I know what the boy is saying as he chooses the white doll.

It is the story of the experiments during the 1940s when black youngsters were to identify the “good” doll and the “bad” doll. Too often the feelings of self-hate caused the black children to identify the “good” as the white.

Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1947. Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006). Gelatin silver print; 17.8 x 17.5 cm. The Gordon Parks Foundation. Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

I am also brought to tears seeing Parks’s image of two black youngsters huddled in the corner of a room where they embrace a white doll that is almost their size. Parks captured the image in 1942 when he worked for the Farm Security Administration. The image depicts two children sitting on a bare floor with a doll as they lean against a wall with a heat register. There is no further commentary.

However, there are also uplifting photographs of people working or dealing with everyday aspects of their lives. In Charles White in front of his mural “Chaos of the American Negro,” White seems to possess a sense of surety as he holds his paintbrushes. White peers into the camera with a certainty as to who he is. His eyes pierce Parks’s lens, thus looking into me as I stare back at him. From this photograph, I draw a strength to continue in the quest to erase the poverty, racism, and social ills that Parks wrote about even in his earliest work.

Charles White in front of his mural “Chaos of the American Negro, 1941. Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006). Gelatin silver print; 22 x 24 cm. The Charles White Archives. Courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

In all of his photographs, including those featuring women in high fashions, the eyes of his subjects seem to speak through the photographs. Parks understood the importance of eyes, especially those that looked directly into the camera lens. The eyes help tell the stories Parks saw and then captured on film.

Among my favorites is Washington, D.C. Government charwoman of 1942. It is reminiscent of the well-known 1930 Grant Wood painting American Gothic, in which a white farmer, pitchfork in hand, and a woman stand in front of an Iowa farmhouse. In Parks’s photograph 12 years later, Ella Watson strikes a similar pose as she holds a broom and a mop while standing in front of a large American flag.

Washington, D.C. Government charwoman, July 1942. Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006). Gelatin silver print; 23.7 x 18.2 cm. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., LC-USF34–013407-C [P&P]. Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Photograph

For 26 years she went to work at government offices in Washington, D.C., at 5:30 p.m. to clean offices, halls, and toilets. At 2:30 a.m. she returned home, where her adopted grandchildren and an adopted daughter lived on her salary of $1,080 a year. It is possibly Parks’s best-known photograph.

Parks wrote that his supervisor at the Farm Security Administration commented, “That picture could get us all fired.” But Parks was insistent. Until his death, he commented on the photograph.

The artist said he “experienced a kind of bigotry and discrimination [there] that I had never expected to experience.” He asked Watson about her life and what it was like. He said that her situation was “so disastrous that I felt I must photograph this woman in a way that would make me feel or make the public feel about what Washington, D.C., was like in 1942.

“So I put her before the American flag with a broom in one hand and a mop in the other. And I said, ‘American Gothic’ — that’s how I felt at the moment. I didn’t care what anybody else felt. That’s what I felt about America and Ella Watson’s position inside America.”

For me, her eyes are the part of the photograph that stands out the most. She signifies another aspect of “American Gothic.” Looking into the camera, she still represents me — hardworking and standing by the American flag but also troubled by poverty, racism, and the social ills of which Parks began talking about and photographing decades ago.

These early works of Gordon Parks resonate just as much as they did when he first set the aperture of his camera, aimed it, focused on the nation, and fired the shutter.