Gordon Parks and Photographing America

Gordon PARKS, Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956, Ink jet print

Gordon Parks, Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956, printed 2021. Inkjet print, 116 x 116 cm approx. Purchased 2021. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © The Gordon Parks Foundation Photo: NGC

Department Store, Mobile, Alabama by Black American photographer Gordon Parks is an icon of mid-20th-century photography, a window into the fabric of mid-century American society. Made in 1956 as part of a LIFE magazine photographic essay, this image illustrates a society formed and divided in the Deep South by pernicious Jim Crow laws. The National Gallery of Canada has been able to acquire this compelling photograph for its collection, which includes three other works by Parks: Emerging Man (1952), Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at a Civil Rights Rally at Lincoln Memorial, Washington, (1963) and Harlem Rooftops (1948).

Gordon Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington, D.C., 1963 , 1963, printed c. 1965. Gelatin silver print

Gordon Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington, D.C., 1963 , 1963, printed c. 1965. Gelatin silver print, 20.5 x 25.3 cm.  Purchased 2012. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © The Gordon Parks Foundation Photo: NGC

Along with James Van der Zee and Roy DeCarava, the multi-talented Parks was one of the most influential figures in 20th-century photography, and in particular Black American photography. A musician, writer and filmmaker, Parks was first struck by the power of the photograph (he would later refer to the camera as a “weapon of choice”) in the mid- to late 1930s. While employed as a porter on a passenger train servicing the Northwest and Midwest of the United States, he came across a publication of Depression-era photographs that included the work of Dorothea Lange. The realization that the camera had the potential for producing historical records and describing social injustices inspired him to purchase a camera, start making his own photographs and work as a photojournalist for various agencies and newspapers. Receiving grants and awards for his photography, he was hired by the Farm Security Administration in the late spring of 1942 and then the Office of War Information and Standard Oil.

While stationed in Washington, D.C., in 1942, Parks made his well-known photograph American Gothic of Ella Watson, a Black American cleaner in a federal building. A riff on Grant Wood’s 1930 painting of the same name, the work expressed Parks’ life-long history of being subjected to racial discrimination and his empathy towards those who had suffered equally. It heralded his determination to use photography to make prejudice visible and also to hold accountable the perpetrators in history, if not in the present time.

As a professional and technically savvy photographer, he started publishing books on photographic techniques in the late 1940s. From this time onward, Parks’ reputation preceded him, and he was sought after by major fashion and picture magazines such as Vogue and became the first Black American photographer to be hired by LIFE magazine.

Gordon Parks, Untitled (Self-Portrait), 1941, printed 2017. Gelatin silver print

Gordon Parks, Untitled (Self-Portrait), 1941, printed 2017. Gelatin silver print, 50.8 x 40.6 cm. Purchased 2021. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © The Gordon Parks Foundation Photo: NGC

This is when Department Store Mobile, Atlanta made its appearance. In 1956, Parks published the 12-page, 26-photo essay, with text by Robert Wallace and titled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” exploring the effects of racial segregation on the everyday lives of three Black American families – the Thorntons, the Causeys and the Tanners – in and around Mobile, Alabama (the predominantly Black town was Shady Grove). In fact, all three families were related to the Thorntons, a family that, atypical for its time, was able to see four of their twelve children not only graduate from college but occupy influential positions within academic institutions.

The elegant young woman pictured with her young niece is Joanne Wilson, one of the Thorntons' daughters, who taught American Government and Economics at an Alabama high school. Parks captures the moment on a Sunday outing, when Joanne's niece – lured by the smell of popcorn – asks to enter by the segregated entrance. Wilson balks at the signage that confronts them and looks around for some other place to buy popcorn. Parks’ special talent permitted him to marry the political content of the scene and the mundane visual facts of the world with formal brilliance. Proving to be a colourist equal to the celebrated William Eggleston, Parks rivets our attention on the egregious bright neon red-and-blue signage in the foreground “COLORED ENTRANCE,” and then engages the eye to travel down the sharp perspective of the street punctuated by a person in red further down the sidewalk on the left and more signs and street furniture in red in the distance on the right side. In this way, that sign is indelibly registered in our mind’s eye.

To compose a complex and coherent visual narrative with seconds at his disposal was a testament to Parks’ ability to work under extreme conditions, as well as a display of his composure and agility. Describing the experience of undertaking this assignment – which also posed a significant risk to his subjects and to fellow reporter Sam Yette – in his 2014 book Gordon Park: Segregation, he wrote, “with a small camera tucked in my pocket, I was there [to document ] Alabama, the mother of racism.”

Although some view the editorial selection for this 1956 LIFE spread on segregation as a deviation from the magazine’s usual “even-handed approach” in the “service of journalistic objectivity,” the rejected images from the “segregation series,” of which Department Store, Mobile, Alabama was one, are more trenchant and more powerful. It is most fortunate that the 200 transparencies he made from this assignment – thought to have been lost – were found in the storage vaults of the Gordon Parks Foundation.

This was a rare opportunity to acquire a print of this image, exceptionally made available to the Gallery by the Gordon Parks Foundation through the Jenkins Johnson Gallery to mark the retirement of Ann Thomas, the Gallery’s interim Head curator and former Senior Curator of the Department of Photography.


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