American Gothic, 1942

Gordon Parks, photographer, artist, and later filmmaker, was hired as a trainee in the Farm Security Administration’s photography program in 1941.  As an African American, he used his position to document the living and working conditions of blacks in the nation’s capital.  One of his best known series is a photo essay about the government cleaning woman Ella Watson, who supported herself, her daughter, and her three grandchildren on a very small salary.

This is the photo that began the series, a picture of Watson with the tools of her trade posed against the American flag.   Parks called it “American Gothic, 1942” because the pose was similar to Grant Wood’s painting of that name.  It gives us a good sense of the kinds of clothes that Watson wore to work—a no nonsense polka dotted house dress with a band at the waist instead of a belt.  What looks like missing buttons at the top and a tear at the waist give an indication of her tight budget.

This is only one, the most famous, of a series of photos documenting Ella Watson’s life. Read more about Parks and Ella Watson here.

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