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Photography

A New American Gothic

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This post is part of a series called Look at This: Hail the Maintainers!.
A Boy Among Men
Mrs. Ella Watson by Gordon Parks, 1942. Part of the Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Source The Library of Congress).

What Can We See?

Pictured here in lovely black and white is a powerful image of a woman with a detached stare as she stands next to the tools of her trade. She stands firmly faced forward, almost armed with both cleaning instruments at either side, with a large American flag hanging behind her in the distance.

We can tell from the distinctive black borders that this photograph was made using large-format film. The photographer, or whoever developed the film, wrote a number on the rebate: 18407-C. The presence of these borders means that this is likely a contact print from the negative, not an enlargement.

The subject is Mrs. Ella Watson, an African American government charwoman responsible for cleaning offices. It's August, 1942, and this image by photographer Gordon Parks lends it'self to an interesting commentary to the social and economic attitudes of it's time.

But what else can we see?

Look Familiar?

That eerily familiar feeling you might be experiencing now is because the composition of this photo is very similar to the famous American Gothic painting by the artist Grant Wood. Twelve years after the original, you can see that photographer Gordon Parks was inspired by the unique storytelling of this piece.

While Wood focused on the lives of people living in the American Gothic House, Parks creates an interesting perspective on the lives of those behind the American nation: the nameless laborers, those who keep things in order behind closed doors so that everything may function soundly.

So How Does This Photo Make You Feel?

Despite it's relation to American Gothic, when I look at this photo I get an entirely different vibe. First off, something about the fact that it's a real life person instead of an interpretation through a painting makes me feel much more connected to this somber-looking woman from yester year. Simply by using a heroic pose with an African American worker, Parks is able to subvert and turn the mythology of (white) American exceptionalism and racial superiority on its head. This is, in fact, a country built by the labor of immigrants of many different faces, colors, and backgrounds.

I also can't help but focus in on some very particular details that help reinforce an imaginary story I've composed in my head. To me, Mrs. Ella Watson is a firm but delicate woman. Modestly dressed to reflect her position and the shortages imposed by World War II, she captures an attitude of hard work that's often forgotten. Despite her small build and graying hair she's a stubbornly thorough worker. You can see this by the overworked bristles of her broom. But just like any person, she's momentarily caught in a thought so consuming that the photographer simply couldn't resist to capture it.

But what could that thought be?

Because of the context of the photo as well as the time period, I immediately wonder who she would've been without the imposed limitations and restrictions. The American flag almost overwhelms the composition behind her. So is this on purpose? What were her dreams? Where would she want to be? And could she know that 20 or so years would be the difference between cleaning up after the scions of government and creating change within it?

Lastly, as a biracial woman myself, this photo reminds me of how much my own life would be different had I been born in an earlier time. So maybe in her very own way, she was "clearing" the path for future generations. And for that, I think Wood has created a remarkable dialogue with this photograph.

Now It's Your Turn! Hello There Curious Fella...

Chopping Cotton on Rented Land. Jack Delano 1941, Part of the Office of War Information Collection (Source: Library of Congress).

Here's another powerful image, this time by photographer Jack Delano of sharecroppers chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Georgia. What do you see in this photo and how does it make you feel? Are you as distracted by the curious child as I am? Could this be a family of workers? Let us know with your own interpretations.

If you're unsure of what to look for in a photograph, check out Dawn Oosterhoff's excellent article: How to Read a Photograph and let us know what you see in this image.

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