Gordon Parks Photography: Life in a WW2 Housing Project
Gordon Parks was a man of many firsts. As the New York Times noted in its obituary when he died in 2006, Parks was the first black photographer ever hired to the staff of LIFE magazine, the first to produce and direct a major Hollywood film, and the first to work for the government agency that produced some of the most impactful photographic documentaries of the 1930s and 1940s.
Long acknowledged as the dean of African American photographers, Gordon Parks is now hailed as one of the greatest photo-journalists of the 20th century. But in 1942 he was just beginning his career. He was selected for a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund that brought him to Washington to work as a photographer in the Farm Security Administration. Parks had been inspired by the work of FSA luminaries such as Dorothea Lange and Jack Delano.
That brief stint in the FSA (which disbanded in 1943) produced several memorable photographic collections. One of these was the series he took, dated July 1942, in a housing project in the nation’s capital. The “Frederick Douglass housing project for Negroes” in the Anacostia section of Washington, DC was originally built as temporary housing for black war workers. "Temporary" turned out to be a long time - it was finally deemed uninhabitable and vacated in 1998.
Knowing just that about the Frederick Douglass housing project, I would expect it to be a pretty cheerless place. But the sense I get from Gordon Parks’ photo essay is more of joy than of despair. I guess that’s why I really love these photos, and wanted to share them here.
Titles in quotes are from Parks. Those without quotes are my own.
"A dance group"
This is probably the most well known of the Douglass project photos. The joy of these young dancers, intent on doing it just right, is contagious.
"Mother and her daughter"
This is my personal favorite because I recognize that bathroom! I grew up public housing in Tennessee, and apparently the same plan for the buildings was used in a number of different locations. Everything about this bathroom is exactly the way I remember it being in the place I still think of as "home."
Mom preparing dinner
This is obviously the same mom as in the above photo (note the dress). She is apparently watching her children through the kitchen window as she prepares the evening meal.
Parks' original caption for this photo was simply "Children." But they look to me like best friends!
Actually it looks like all three may be best friends.
"Playing in the community sprayer"
Having grown up in a housing project in the South that was totally innocent of any air conditioning (it was actually forbidden), I know just how much joy this young man is feeling being in the spray on a hot summer's day.
"Cooling off under the community sprayer"
I don't think this is the same young man as in the photo above. But the joy of the cool water is certainly the same!
"Boys playing leap frog near the project"
It's a hot summer day in wartime near a housing project in one of the poorest sections of town. But that's no reason not to have fun!
With the boys all off having fun, somebody has to do the chores.
"Boys overlooking the project"
The Frederick Douglass housing project may have been segregated, "temporary" housing in a poor part of the city, but to these youngsters it was home. Having grown up in similar circumstances, I feel a kinship with them. I hope their memories of that time are good ones.
© 2013 Ronald E Franklin