Monday, March 12, 2012

A choice of weapons: Photographs of Gordon Parks

"Use anger to emotionalize whatever thing you intend to do in life - being a painter, a poet or a photographer"

-Gordon Parks. (Thorson, 1994, p. B-1)


This instructional resource introduces secondary students to photographs by Gordon Parks. Students will study two photographs from the 1940s and two from the 1960s. They will look carefully at the photographs and learn to recognize the importance of composition and framing in delivering his message. Discussion questions will encourage students to consider how photography became a tool for Parks to speak out against social injustice.

Biography: Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks is one of the most influential social documentary artists of the 20th century. Through his photography, films, autobiographies, and poetry, he is committed to studying the human condition of those who suffer social, political, and economic injustices. His work is directly influenced by his own life experiences as an African American who was raised in the Midwest during some of the most turbulent times in recent U.S. history.

Born in 1912, the youngest of 15 children in a family that farmed in rural Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks witnessed extreme poverty and racism firsthand. At the age of 15, he moved to Minneapolis following his mother's death and supported himself with various odd jobs. Although he attended integrated schools, he faced prejudice and segregation from White communities. To combat these problems, he bought his first camera in 1938 and used it to voice his concerns for civil rights, poverty, and crime and as a means to earn income.

Parks's career in photography took many forms. He first photographed fashion in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and then in Chicago. In 1941, he became the first photographer to receive a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. The fellowship allowed him to work in the photography department with Roy Stryker, the director of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C. The agency's mission was to document the social and cultural effects of the Depression throughout the country. He later worked as a photographer for the Office of War Information (OWI).

Parks returned to the world of fashion in 1944 when he was hired by Vogue magazine to photograph haute couture. By 1948, he became the first African-American photographer for Life magazine, for which he worked in both the United States and Paris. Some of his most significant photography projects for Life magazine include his pictures of Harlem gang violence, religious and social leaders such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, and portraits such as Muhammad Ali.

In addition to Parks's photography, his most noteworthy projects include several volumes of poetry, autobiographies like The Learning Tree (Parks, 1963) and A Choice of Weapons (Parks, 1966) and several films such as his 1971 action movie "Shaft" that features an African-American hero.

Recently, Parks, who lives in New York City, has been photographing landscapes and still lifes and continues to write books on photography and poetry.

Historical Background

After Slavery

After the abolishment of slavery in 1865, several organizations arose to end racial injustice and promote equality for all U.S. citizens, but that would prove to be a slow process. Even after African Americans were granted the right to vote in 1870, there was a long way to go toward equality. Many laws still existed that kept public and private facilities segregated. It wasn't until the 1960s, almost 100 years later, that the effort gained enough momentum and attention to facilitate change.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression lasted from about 1929 when the U.S. stock market crashed, to the beginning of U.S. involvement in WWII, and it was one of the bleakest periods in U. S. history. Economic collapse, compounded with the Dust Bowl and other natural disasters, left many people jobless and homeless. This desperate period in U.S. history caused people to question democracy, capitalism, and individualism. The U.S. government reacted by creating agencies and controls to manage economic and social problems ( contracts/lrc/kc/decade30.html#events).

Farm Security Administration (FSA)

The FSA photography project was active from 1937-1942. Roy Emerson Stryker, the head of this government project, hired many photographers including Gordon Parks, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn to document the plight of rural Americans during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. As the project developed, photographers also began to record life in urban areas as well. Specific subjects and geographic locations were assigned to the photographers. The main office in Washington, D.C., maintained files of photographs deemed suitable and distributed them to newspapers, magazines, and book publishers. As a result of this project, 77,000 black-and-- white and 644 color documentary still photographs were produced of life in the United States during this difficult period in U. S. history ( fahome.html). When speaking about the other documentary photographers working for the FSA, Parks (1979) said, "Their memorable photographs, full of intolerance of the poor, indicted America and could only have been done under a president like Roosevelt" (p. 24).

Civil Rights Movement

By the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement in the United States was in full swing. The Civil Rights movement encompassed many people with different beliefs on how to achieve the goal of equality on a national level. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and groups such as the NAACP promoted a peaceful method for change, while other groups such as the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers advocated more extreme revolutionary actions or methods and promoted separation of races.

The Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam, sometimes called Black Muslims, was founded in 1930 by Wallace Fard as a Black Nationalist and religious organization. He preached that "African Americans could obtain success through discipline, racial pride, knowledge of God, and physical separation from white society" ( Elijah Muhammad, who had been Fard's assistant, took over as spiritual leader when Fard died in 1934. Elijah Muhammad remained leader of the Nation of Islam until his death in 1975.

Malcolm X

In the 1950s, Malcolm X, a follower of Elijah Muhammad, became the most important figure after Muhammad in the Nation of Islam. He became more extreme in his views, asserting that African Americans use "any means necessary" to gain freedom. In 1964, Malcolm X broke from the Black Muslims after becoming disenchanted with Elijah Muhammad, and he established his own organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. In February of 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem. Three Black Muslims were convicted of the crime.

Parks's Involvement with the Nation of Islam

In 1963, while working for Life magazine, Gordon Parks befriended and photographed some of the leading figures of the Civil Rights movement. Life commissioned Parks to infiltrate the Nation of Islam and to get close to Malcolm X. They had tried unsuccessfully for 3 years with a White photographer. Parks got a friend to introduce him to Malcolm X and told him he wanted to do a story on the Black Muslims. Malcolm agreed to introduce him to Elijah Muhammand, the only one who could grant permission. After several meetings with Muhammad, Parks was finally given permission, and for 3 months he was allowed to go inside mosques and attend rallies. Parks produced a series of photographs of the Black Muslims, including Malcolm X, in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Malcolm X grew close to Gordon Parks while acting as his guide to the Black Muslim world and asked him to be the godfather to his daughter Qubilah.

Gordon Parks, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942

Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Friends of the Art Museum purchase, 93.43

Object Description

This photograph shows the charwoman Ella Watson posed in front of the U.S. flag. Watson worked in the government building that housed the FSA She is flanked by her broom and mop. Watson looks directly at the viewer and is in sharp focus while the flag behind her is blurred. She stands in the middle of the image, taking up the lower half of the picture, while the flag takes up the upper half.


Besides the contrast of lights and darks, what other contrasts do you see?

What is repeated?

Is the picture symmetrically or asymmetrically balanced?

How does your eye move throughout the picture?

How has Parks drawn your attention to the woman?

Describe the space. Is it shallow or deep? Is the woman in the foreground or the background? How much space does the woman fill? The flag? Mop and broom?

Describe the mood.

Gordon Parks, Black Children with White Doll, 1942

Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Friends of the Art Museum purchase, 93.45

Object Description

This photograph shows two small Black children crouched against the wall with a white doll sitting between them. One child looks out at the viewer, while the other looks down. The children are scantily clothed and barefooted. The blonde-- haired doll wears a white dress and one shoe. This photograph is contemporary with research on understanding the development of racial identification in young children that was being done by the African-American psychologist Kenneth B. Clark (Pultz, 1995).


Besides the pattern in the heater vent, what is repeated?

How does your eye move through this work of art?

Describe the space. Is it deep or shallow? Where are the children and doll located in the photograph? Do the children and doll fill up a lot of the space or just a little?

From what perspective do you see the children and doll?

How has Parks drawn your attention to the children and the doll?

How does Parks's composition and framing affect the mood? Consider the space, pose of the children and doll, their confined position between the door frame and heater vent.

How would you characterize these children? Consider the room, clothing, and contrasts within the image.

Consider the contrast between the white doll and the Black children. What kind of social message might this convey?

Gordon Parks, Elijah Muhammad's Daughter, Ethel Shariff, Chicago, 1963

Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Friends of the Art Museum purchase, 93.50

Object Description

Ethel Shariff was the daughter of Elijah Muhammad and the leader of the women's corps of the Black Muslims. Shariff stands in front of the group of women. Parks has placed her in the center of the frame and in sharp focus while many of the women followers fan out behind her. They wear the traditional dress of the organization. Shariff s gaze directly confronts the viewer while the other faces blur. This work was part of a photographic essay on Black Muslims that was published in Life on May 31,1963.


Shariff was the leader of the women's corps of the Black Muslims. How has Parks made that clear in this image?

Describe the stance and expression of Shariff.

Describe how the image is balanced.

Is the space deep or shallow?

How does Parks repeat elements to create a sense of unity?

How does the way the image was framed create a sense of a larger group?

What words would you use to describe the feeling or mood? How does Park convey a sense of unity and strength among these women and communicate their beliefs?

Discuss how the formal composition communicates the beliefs of this religious organization.

Gordon Parks, Malcolm X Selling Newspaper, 1963

Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Friends of the Art Museum purchase, 93.44

Object Description

This is a tightly cropped image of Malcolm X holding a Chicago newspaper "Extra" edition that reads "seven unarmed negroes shot in cold blood by Los Angeles police." Malcolm X turns slightly towards the camera. He is also making eye contact with the viewer.


What is the center of interest in this photograph?

Is the space deep or shallow?

Is this a posed or candid shot? How do you know?

In this photograph, Parks had tightly cropped the image so that Malcolm X and the newspaper occupy most of the picture. In another version of the photograph, the image is more vertical with more of Malcolm X showing. What effect does a tightly cropped image have?

What is the mood of this image? What does it express?

Discussion Activities

* Read the following quotes by Gordon Parks.

"I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, and poverty. I could have just as easily picked up a knife or a gun, like many of my childhood friends did... most of whom were murdered or put in prison... but I chose not to go that way. I felt that I could somehow subdue these evils by doing something beautiful that people recognize me by, and thus make a whole different life for myself, which has proved to be so" (

"It's not enough to take a person's picture and label it Bigot. You have to get at the source of their bigotry. And that's not easy. The camera becomes a powerful weapon when put to good use" (

"I bought that Voightlander Brilliant at a Seattle pawnshop: it wasn't much of a camera, but for only $7.50, I had purchased a weapon I had hoped to use against a warped past and an uncertain future" (

In each of the above quotes, Parks has considered his camera a weapon. Discuss how this philosophy applies to each of the photographs.

* Compare American Gothic, Washington, D. C. with Elijah Muhammad's Daughter, Ethel Shariff. Describe the similarities between the two. Discuss composition, balance, emphasis, focus, lines, and framing. How does the stance and expression of Ella Watson, the woman in American Gothic, Washington, D. C., compare to that of Ethel Sharif?. Which woman looks in control of her situation? Which appears strong and empowered? Which appears tired and resigned? Why? What might these photographs say about the women's position in or relationship to the United States? What message might Parks be trying to convey about their situation?

* Compare Elijah Muhammad's Daughter, Ethel Shariff, Chicago with Malcolm X Selling Newspaper. Is the composition formal or informal? Which seems more candid? How do they differ? Compare the gaze and facial expression of Ethel Shariff and Malcolm X. Now compare the pose of Black Children with White Doll to these two photographs. Does is appear formally composed, informally composed, or candid?

* Discuss the four photographs. Consider composition, focus, framing, balance, lines, subject, and historical period in which they were created.

* Gordon Parks was motivated by the racial and social injustice that he saw around him and used his camera to expose it. Have the students discuss an event or issue that troubles them and illustrate it, or let students use cameras as "weapons" to document social injustice today. Discuss other ways you might solve a problem of social injustice other than using physical violence.

* Examine how today's photojournalists choose to depict world events and related issues. What are they photographing? Discuss subject matter, composition, framing, focus, and posed versus candid images.


Discussion and projects should reflect students' understanding of how Parks used his camera as a tool or weapon to speak out against injustice. They should communicate an understanding of how Parks used composition, framing, and focus to deliver his message.




Brookman, P. (1997). Half past autumn. Boston: Bullfinch Press.

Parks, G. (1979). To smile in autumn. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Parks. G. (1966). A choice of weapons. New York: Harper & Row.

Parks, G. (1963). The learning tree. New York: Harper & Row.

Pultz, J. (1995). The body and the lens: Photography 1839 to the present. New York: Abrams.

Thorson, A. (1994, March 27). Channeling anger into photography. KC Star, B-1, B-5.

[Author Affiliation]

All three authors work at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Kristina E. Mitchell is Education Services Coordinator. Amanda Martin-Hamon is the Docent Program Coordinator. Elissa Anderson is Curatorial Intern in the Photography Department. E-mail addresses are:,,

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