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Iconic Photo: American Gothic

This photo was taken in 1942 by world renowned photographer/writer/musician/filmmaker

Gordon Parks. It was originally titled Washington DC Charwoman but later became known as

American Gothic after Grant Woods’ painting by the same name. Though considered by many to be Mr. Parks’ most famous photo, the snapshot was taken on a whim. He was an observer of Black American life, documenting the joys and tribulations of his people, and would soon become a freelance photographer for Glamour and Ebony magazines then a staff photographer for Life by doing so. His photojournalism would help push the burgeoning Civil Rights movement for which he was a huge advocate and participant.

He was in Washington DC to do work for an insurance company. He moved about studying

the community and was stunned by what he learned. There on the border of Southern racism and segregation he was confronted by Jim Crow laws. He was denied entrance into a theater, refused service in a restaurant, and turned away from a department store where he attempted to purchase a winter coat to brave the harsh January cold. He retreated back to the company building where he met the subject for this piece.

Ella Watson was a grandmother working as a housekeeper cleaning offices. She told Parks

her life story, how she had no high school diploma, had been widowed at a young age, and was then financially supporting her grandchildren. She permitted the photograph, following his directions to stand in front of a large hanging American flag with broom in one hand and mop in the other. She then gave him access into her world which led to a poignant photo essay.


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