PRINT October 2018

Iconic Encounter

Gordon Parks, Government charwoman, Washington, D.C., August 1942. Credit Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection.

EVEN NOW, decades later, it retains the power to mesmerize. Spare and emblematic, the image has the concision of a single-verse hymn: a woman, standing at center, mop and broom on either side of her; a few pieces of office equipment appearing at left and right; an American flag hanging in the background. Yet there is just enough ambiguity to elicit closer attention. Note the woman’s gaze: Some have described her as staring straight into the camera, while others assert she is looking down and to the side. I believe it’s the latter, but the angle of her eyeglasses, along with that sliver of shadow below her eye, like the track of a tear, make the precise direction of her glance unclear. And the photographer took care to adjust the depth of field so that, while the woman is in focus, the flag behind her is hazy and indistinct.

The image, arguably Gordon Parks’s best known and most widely circulated, is one in a remarkable series of pictures resulting from an extended collaboration between the photographer and federal worker Ella Watson. Over several weeks in the summer of 1942, Parks captured Watson at work, at home, and at her church. He also documented her immediate milieu: the view from the window of her apartment, the shoppers at her neighborhood market, the workers at her local laundry. A closer look at their collaborative endeavor brings to light the scope and ambition of Parks’s artistic vision, while also offering the opportunity to revise our understanding of Watson’s role in the creation of these photographs.

Gordon Parks, View from the bedroom window of Mrs. Ella Watson, a government worker, Washington, D.C., August 1942 Credit Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection.

Parks arrived in Washington, DC, that spring, the recipient of a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Among its many philanthropic enterprises, the Rosenwald Fund helped build rural schools for African American children across the South and awarded grants for travel and creative activity to a range of black artists, including Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Augusta Savage. The support Parks received from the fund helped to secure him a position working under the tutelage of Roy Stryker, the legendary chief of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration, who oversaw a wide-ranging project to document American life—one that produced some of the twentieth century’s most enduring photographs.1 Parks was the FSA’s first—and ultimately only—African American photographer.

In a profile published in the July 1946 issue of Ebony, Parks recalled arriving in the nation’s capital full of energy and optimism.2 “I was like a kid about Washington—excited, thrilled. I was dumb enough to regard it as the symbol of everything wonderful in the United States.”3 Parks had spent most of his adult life in Minnesota and Illinois, and Stryker, who at the time was more cognizant ofthe city’s deep-seated racism, sent the young photographer out to explore. “Go get yourself a good meal, buy a hat, take in a movie, go for a bus-ride,” Parks recalled him saying. “Leave your camera with me—then write up what you saw, and how you want to go about photographing this town.”4 Whether intentionally or otherwise, Stryker had sent him to run the city’s Jim Crow gauntlet. Once Parks was alerted to the realities of segregation in Washington, having been refused service at stores, theaters, and restaurants, he sat down to record his response: “Man, I pounded that typewriter so hard it almost melted. I wrote for two days. I wanted to photograph every rotten discrimination in the city, and show the world how evil Washington was.”5 As the story goes, Stryker eventually suggested to Parks that Watson, who was cleaning the FSA offices, might be a suitable photographic subject.

Gordon Parks, A dance group, Frederick Douglass housing project, Anacostia, Washington, D.C., June 1942. Credit Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection.

There are photographs Parks took that summer that portray “every rotten discrimination”: a boy on crutches in a doorway, his leg lost in a streetcar accident; a young girl in bed with an infection caused by a rat bite. Yet others are aspirational, even joyful, like his images of the commencement exercises at Howard University, and of a line of pint-sized dancers practicing ballet positions. He also captured portraits of influential figures in the African American community, such as Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, and famed entertainer and activist Paul Robeson.6 Other pictures by Parks, however, are not so easily categorized.

A closer look at their collaborative endeavor brings to light the scope and ambition of Parks’s artistic vision.

Soon after I began poring over Parks’s FSA negatives, available in digitized form on the Library of Congress website, I came across one image that continues to haunt me. According to Parks’s notes, he took the picture near the site of the Frederick Douglass Dwellings, a housing project built for African American workers during World War II.7 In the dozen or so scenes he captured at the Douglass Dwellings, he focused on recording slice-of-life moments, including the photo of the aforementioned young dancers as well as one of boys playing leap-frog, and another of a mother watching her children while she prepares dinner. When he took the image in question, however, he turned his attention to a scene devoid of human presence: In a brush-filled lot, a weathered wooden sign advertises a real-estate opportunity for a “colored” development. By including that sign in the foreground of his image, Parks put the fact of segregation front and center. Behind the placard looms a single tree—dark, blasted, its limbs sawn to jagged stumps—silhouetted against a cloud-filled sky. Its presence can’t help but evoke the shameful history of racial violence in the United States; in the decade prior, artists had often used such denuded trunks to symbolize lynching trees.8 In stark contrast to that gnarled, desiccated trunk, young plantings dot the terrain in Parks’s views of the Douglass Dwellings, conveying the promise of new beginnings. What caught my attention was that, in the midst of capturing shots that served the FSA’s general purposes, Parks was compelled to create something different: an uncanny tableau, its subject less easily defined, that delivers an unsettling jolt.

Gordon Parks, Playing in  the community sprayer, Frederick Douglass housing project, Anacostia, Washington, D.C., June 1942. Credit Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection.

Titles possess a strong magic. They function like binding spells, restricting an artwork’s meaning, its available range of references. That’s no less true of Parks’s iconic image of Watson, which is now commonly referred to as American Gothic, Washington, D.C. Applying that label, the photograph is read as a politically charged transfiguration of Grant Wood’s indelible American Regionalist painting: An African American laborer replaces Wood’s dour white Midwesterners, the farmer’s pitchfork supplanted by her mop and broom. However, the association with Wood’s picture came later.9 Parks’s original caption, following standard FSA practice, was Government charwoman, Washington, D.C.—a title that places the emphasis on its subject’s profession.10 In fact, there are numerous images of both Watson and another woman working, suggesting that Parks may initially have had a different purview in mind—perhaps a series on cleaners at work—before focusing solely on Watson.

Gordon Parks, Sign on Alabama Avenue, Frederick Douglass housing project, Anacostia, Washington, D.C., June 1942. Credit Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection.

Certain elements in the photographs Parks made that summer highlight a simple, easily overlooked fact: These are wartime images. Watson standing before the American flag, mop and broom at her side, should be understood within the context of the African American experience of discrimination and segregation during World War II. Even as military enlistment created a shortage of labor on the home front, entrenched racism hindered the employment of qualified African Americans. By the summer of 1942—precisely as Parks was setting out to photograph for the FSA—this issue had become a major topic of public discussion. In a July address at the University of Virginia, Brigadier General Frank McSherry, director of operations for the War Manpower Commission, asserted that “employers can no longer afford to discriminate against Negroes and workers of other minority groups. . . . We cannot afford to permit any preconceived prejudices or artificial hiring standards to interfere with the production of tanks, planes and guns.”11 By mid-June, African American leaders were calling for a national campaign to protest the Army, Navy, government agencies, war industries, and labor unions. They planned rallies in New York and Chicago, and threatened a large-scale march on Washington if these inequities were not addressed.12 Historian Carol Anderson, who has documented how labor problems rooted in racism and discrimination politicized the African American community during the war, quotes two leaders who used language that resonates strongly with Parks’s image of Watson:

At the NAACP’s national convention [in 1941], Oklahoma Black Dispatch editor Roscoe Dunjee challenged the American government to come up with something more original than the idea that African Americans were supposed to fight Hitler’s army with only “a mop and a broom.” Black government official Robert Weaver echoed that sentiment when he intoned that, “We cannot stop tanks with squads of janitors. We cannot blast the enemy with buckets of charwomen.”13

If the visual rhetoric of Parks’s photo echoes wartime debates about African American labor, it also draws on a long-standing iconographic tradition: The personification of the nation in the form of an allegorical female figure often wielding two staves or implements, accompanied by (or at times costumed in) the flag. Typically labeled “Columbia” or “Liberty,” these characters circulated widely in popular culture from at least the nineteenth century and through the World War I era. By World War II, Uncle Sam had largely supplanted Liberty, but in July 1942—the month Parks was likely taking many of his photographs of Watson—the cover of Vogue revisited the tradition by featuring a model posed between two flagpoles, Old Glory billowing behind her. Parks’s portrait of Watson takes the popular allegory and racially recasts it, transforming the symbol of a unified national identity into an exemplification of those who have been excluded from it.

Gordon Parks, Government charwoman, Washington, D.C., August 1942. Credit Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection.

But what of Watson’s own role in the creation of these images? Looking at the entire body of photographs she made with Parks reveals the extent to which she was actively performing for his camera. Although the ostensible purpose of these pictures was to show the subject at work (a common FSA aim), one notes that Watson is often captured not working at all. There are a number of images of her sweeping or wetting a sponge at a sink, but in the most memorable examples, she’s posing—more like a professional model in an artist’s atelier than a worker busy on the night shift. While there are many reasons why Parks may have chosen Watson as a subject, one likely factor was her apparent willingness to collaborate with him. It’s easy to imagine that others would have quickly tired of the exercise, not wanting to interrupt their long night’s work to give the photographer time to set up, arrange the shot, and take his pictures. Watson was probably sympathetic to his goals. The two conversed at length, as is indicated by Parks’s later recollections, as well as the captions he wrote at the time, which include information about her salary, work history, family, and daily routines.

Watson’s posing was met, in turn, by Parks’s composing. In more than a few images, the photographer made choices regarding lighting and other details that call attention to the artifice of these scenes, perhaps in a bid to undermine their claims to documentary veracity. In one picture of Watson pushing a broom, a beam of light shoots across the floor at a dramatic and improbably low angle.14 In others, Parks leaves his lighting gear in frame: a bulb is propped against a trash can, or a lamp cord snakes along the carpet. Indeed, Parks foregrounds the workings of photography throughout his collaboration with Watson, casting it as a highly mediated form.

Gordon Parks, Government charwoman, Washington, D.C., August 1942. Credit Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection.

A series of four photographs Parks took at the apartment Watson was then sharing with her adopted daughter and three small children reveals the extent to which he was carefully staging his pictures. These images—three shot in a horizontal format, one shot vertically—capture the family at mealtime. Considered in sequence, the photos show how Parks arranged and rearranged the room to achieve the compositions he desired: The children’s small table is moved; a framed picture on the dressing table changes position; the teenager, reflected in the mirror, shifts her pose.

One photograph in this sequence stands out, achieving what Parks was, I think, truly after. To my mind, it should be as well known and as widely reproduced as the iconic image of Watson standing before the flag. In it, Watson and the children are framed within the kitchen doorway, the baby squirming on her knee. Either because of a shift in the photographer’s position, or due to an adjustment of his lighting setup, there is a subtle yet consequential difference between this and the other versions: The light bounces off the mirror in such a way as to make the teenager’s reflection appear fogged, less distinct. The result is a composition containing three separate framing elements—the doorframe, the mirror, and the picture on the dressing table—each conveying a different mode of pictorial representation. Watson and the children are viewed directly through the doorway; the teenager appears as a reflection within the mirror, its hazy surface lending the impression of a memory or dream; and the studio portrait of an African American couple in their Sunday best (variously identified either as Watson and her husband, or as a portrait of her parents) is presented as a picture within a picture.

Gordon Parks, Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman dressing her grandchildren, Washington, D.C., August 1942. Credit Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection.

Parks’s image offers not only three modes of depiction but also three corresponding distinctions in the subjects’ address to the photographer. In the framed photo, husband and wife face the camera and adopt formal poses, as is customary in studio portraits. Their deportment contrasts with both that of the seated teenager, who looks down as if lost in thought, and of Watson, who, caught up in her caregiving responsibilities, directs her attention to her young charges. If the picture functions as a complex meditation on the workings of photographic representation, it also raises questions about the role of authority and consent in the practice of photography in general: What exchange or agreement between photographer and subject led to the image? To what degree were the depicted individuals allowed to determine how they presented themselves to the camera? That such concerns were on Parks’s mind is made even more evident when we consider that, in capturing Watson and the children within the doorway, his photograph reiterates the figural grouping of another iconic FSA image that he surely knew: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California of 1936. In both cases, a woman is flanked by two small children as she holds a baby on her lap.

Watson’s posing was met, in turn, by Parks’s composing.

Lange has been criticized for maintaining the anonymity of her subject, who is cast not as an individual but as a symbol—of poverty, of suffering, of maternal concern. Indeed, Lange would later confess, “I did not ask her name or her history.” (Decades later, the woman was identified by a journalist as Florence Owens Thompson.15) Spending time with Watson and her family and including her name and other pertinent details of her life in his captions were ways for Parks to avoid rendering Watson similarly anonymous, and thus to challenge some of the presumptions implicated in the FSA’s brand of documentary photography. Another way to accomplish the latter was to compose an image that, as we’ve seen with his picture of her household, interrogates the codes and conventions of photographic representation from within.

Gordon Parks,  Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman and her grandchildren, Washington, D.C., August 1942. Credit Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection.

Whatever the depth of his collaboration with Watson, there was still a point at which Parks had to pack up his equipment and go home. So who was she, apart from these photographs? Until recently, the generally available public record of her life has been limited to Parks’s recollections and the information included in his captions. To learn more about Watson, I turned to the National Archives and Records Administration, which retains official personnel folders of federal workers employed between 1850 and 1951, and holds three employment files for her: one from the State Department, where she served as a temporary employee around 1919; one from the Post Office Department, where she worked in the 1920s; and one from the Treasury Department, her place of employment from 1929 through 1944. Various documents list her birth date in late March of 1883, which means that she was fifty-nine years old when Parks photographed her.16 They also tell us that she was born in Washington, DC, that she left school in 1898, when she would have been about fifteen, and that same year went to work ironing at the Frazee Laundry in Washington.17 The files also contain a photograph of Watson, likely a picture she submitted with an employment application. On the back of the photo, she inscribed her name in careful, looping cursive.

So who was Ella Watson apart from these photographs?

A recent interview with several of her surviving relatives—two granddaughters, Audrey Johnson and Sharon Stanley, and one great-granddaughter, Rosslyn Samuels—has provided additional information about her later years.18 Her family members spoke of her strong religious beliefs, which were evidenced in Parks’s pictures of her worshipping at St. Martin’s Spiritual Church, as well as in the devotional imagery displayed in her home. They talked of her daily habit of reading the newspaper, documented in a Parks photograph of her with the paper spread out on a bed. And they described her as a loving, nurturing presence, the matriarch of several generations of an extended family.

A household flood destroyed most of the family’s photographs of Watson, but fortunately a few survive. One shows her at a church event, wearing the white robes of a deaconess. She sits at a table, a half-filled glass of water before her. She appears lost in thought, unconcerned with the goings-on around her. An intimate family snapshot, it offers a view of her later in life, decades after her encounter with Parks. On Monday, April 7, 1980, the Washington Star, a now-shuttered daily newspaper, published two notices of her death; she had passed away the previous Thursday at Prince George’s Hospital convalescent home. She was survived, it was reported, by six grandchildren, twenty-one great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild. According to the record preserved in her family Bible, Ella Watson was ninety-seven years old when she died.

Photograph of Ella Watson from her personnel file at the National Archives and Records Administration, ca. 1920s.

In the course of a life lived for almost a century, the time she spent with Gordon Parks was but a momentary episode. Nonetheless, the two of them, working together, managed to create something noteworthy, a body of profound and purposeful images that continue to reveal themselves to us.

Ella Watson, ca. 1963.

Michael Lobel is a Professor of Art History at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.


1. For a chronology of the FSA Historical Section, see Annette Melville, Farm Security Administration Historical Section: A Guide to Textual Records in the Library of Congress (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1985), 9.

2. “Reporter with a Camera,” Ebony, July 1946, 24–29.

3. “Reporter with a Camera,” 28.

4. “Reporter with a Camera,” 28.

5. “Reporter with a Camera,” 28.

6. Robeson’s visit to Washington, DC, was prompted by the nation’s involvement in World War II, as he was there to perform for the Russian War Relief drive, one of a number of efforts to raise funds for medical supplies to be sent to the Eastern Front. “Diverse Groups Pool Effort for Russian Relief,” Washington Post, June 28, 1942.

7. Parks’s original caption, from the typed list held by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, indicates that he captured this photo of a sign “on Alabama Avenue, near Frederick Douglass Housing Project.” However, in the FSA editing process, the word near was removed.

On the Frederick Douglass Dwellings and segregated housing in Washington, DC, see Deborah Willis, “Flashback: Gordon Parks and the Image of the Capital City,” in Visual Journal: Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties, ed. Deborah Willis and Jane Lusaka (Washington, DC: Center for African American History and Culture and Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 181.

8. See, for instance, images by Hyman Warsager and Julius Bloch, and the cover to the 1935 exhibition catalogue Struggle for Negro Rights, as reproduced in Helen Langa, “Two Antilynching Art Exhibitions: Politicized Viewpoints, Racial Perspectives, Gendered Constraints,” American Art 13, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 10–39. Other examples include Jacob Lawrence’s Another cause was lynching. It was found that where there had been a lynching, the people who were reluctant to leave at first left immediately after this. There were lynchings. panel from his 1940–41 “Migration” series, and Lamar Baker’s 1936–37 etching Fright.

9.The earliest published instance of the American Gothic titling for Parks’s photo I’ve been able to find is from 1980. See, for instance, Marian Christy, “A Date with Fame,” Boston Globe, January 27, 1980. On at least one earlier occasion, Parks did mention Woods’s painting in relation to his portrait of Watson (although not by name), when he described how he stood [Watson] up with her mop hanging down with the American flag hanging down Grant Wood style and did this marvelous portrait, which Stryker thought it was just about the end.” Oral history interview with Gordon Parks, December 30, 1964, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

10. This is the phrasing used in Parks’s original caption, from the typed list held by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Other instances, including the current Library of Congress online entry, list the title as Washington, D.C. Government charwoman. 11. Frank J. McSherry, “Manpower Problems and the War Effort,” July 7, 1942, quoted in Vital Speeches of the Day 8, no. 22 (1942): 702, in “Preventing Labor Discrimination During World War II, 1942,” History Now, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History,, accessed July 18, 2018. See also “War Industry Will Induct 20 Million During 1942–43,” Washington Post, July 8, 1942.

12. Led by such figures as A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the movement was supported by the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Harlem branches of the YMCA and the YWCA, and other organizations. See “Negroes to Fight Employment Bias,” New York Times, June 13, 1942, and “10,000 Negroes Hear Appeal to Ban Color Line,” Chicago Tribune, June 27, 1942.

13. Carol Anderson, Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1955 (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 11.

14. The scholar Nicholas Natanson quotes African American photographer Robert McNeill commenting on Parks’s unconventional approach to lighting: “Gordon was doing so many things that were different [in 1942–43]. I remember seeing him covering a Howard University commencement, and even the other black photographers who were there were saying, ‘Who is that crazy [guy]?’ I mean, Gordon would use four flashbulbs for a single shot, outdoors where he could have gotten away without using any. He wasn’t content just to stand up and take shots from a position that was comfortable for him—he lay on the ground, he shot up, he shot down.” Nicholas Natanson, The Black Image in the New Deal: The Politics of FSA Photography (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992), 266.

15. Dorothea Lange, “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget: Migrant Mother,” Popular Photography, February 1960, 42–43, quoted in Colleen McDannell, Picturing Faith: Photography and the Great Depression (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 1. On the identification of Florence Owens Thompson, see “Never Saw a Cent from Photo: ‘Migrant Mother’ Feels Exploited,” Los Angeles Times, November 17, 1978.

16. There is some ambiguity in the files about Watson’s actual date of birth; at times it is given as March 27, 1883, at others as March 29. Letters in her Post Office and Treasury Department employment files also indicate a lack of clarity about the year, which was variously cited as 1882, 1884, or 1885. A letter sent by the US Civil Service Commission explains that the record of her birth was not preserved in any official documentation but rather in a family Bible. The letter, dated to May 2, 1927 and signed by John T. Doyle, commission secretary, states: “You are advised that on a personal visit to this office Mrs. Watson presented a family Bible, showing that she was born March 27, 1883. The Commission’s records are being changed to show that this is the date of her birth instead of 1884 or 1885 as previously given by her.” Ella Watson Official Personnel Folder, US Post Office Department, National Personnel Records Center, Archival Programs Division, National Archives at Saint Louis. A later (1936) letter from the Civil Service Commission in Watson’s Treasury Department file cites her birth date as March 27.

17. Application for Employment, August 28, 1940, Ella Watson Official Personnel Folder, US Department of the Treasury, National Personnel Records Center, Archival Programs Division, National Archives at Saint Louis. On the application, Watson indicated that she had an earlier course of employment at the Treasury Department, from 1919 to 1922.

18. Interview of Audrey Johnson, Sharon Stanley, and Rosslyn Samuels by Michael Lobel and Philip Brookman, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, August 31, 2017.