Gordon Parks spent the 1930s working a variety of odd jobs that included playing piano in a brothel and cleaning up after alcoholics in a Chicago flophouse. In the mid-1930s, Parks married a St. Paul woman and took a railroad job where he discovered the power of the camera. Here is Part III of a five-part excerpt from "Voices in the Mirror," the autobiography of the renowned photographer.
I applied for a job as a waiter on the North Coast Limited and got it. It was a fine transcontinental train that ran between St. Paul, Chicago and Seattle, Wash., which took about four days.
On quieter runs, in between meals, when the wealthy passengers were either sleeping or consuming alcohol in the lounge cars, I read every magazine I could get my hands on.
In one that had been left behind by a passenger, I found a portfolio of photographs that I would never forget. They were migrant workers. Dispossessed, beaten by storms, dust and floods, they roamed the highways in caravans of battered jalopies and wagons between Oklahoma and California, scrounging for work.
The names of the photographers stuck in my mind--Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, Jack Delano and Dorothea Lange. They all worked for the Farm Security Administration, a government agency set up by President Roosevelt to aid submarginal farmers.
These stark, tragic images of human beings caught up in the confusion of poverty saddened me. I took the magazine home and studied it for weeks. Meanwhile, I read John Steinbeck's "In Dubious Battle" and Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White's "You Have Seen Their Faces." These books stayed in my mind.
During layovers in Chicago, I began visiting the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, spending hours in this large, voiceless place, studying paintings of Monet, Renoir and Manet. At a Chicago movie house, I watched a newsreel of the bombing of the United States gunboat Panay by Japanese fighter planes. Courageously the cameraman had stayed at his post, shooting the final belch of steam and smoke that rose when the boat sank in the Yangtze River.
When the newsreel ended, a voice boomed over the intercom. "And here he is--the photographer who shot this remarkable footage!" Norman Alley, the cameraman, had leaped on the stage to rousing cheers. And I was carried away by his bravery and dedication to his job. From that moment I was determined to become a photographer.
Three days later, I bought my first camera at a pawnshop for $7.50. It was a Voightlander Brilliant. Not much of a camera, but a great name to toss around. I had bought what was to become my weapon against poverty and racism.
I got a porter's job on the 400, a fast train that ran between Minneapolis and Chicago.
The 400 allowed me layovers in Chicago. There, visual imagery multiplied tenfold, with skyscrapers, boats plying Lake Michigan, bridges and the inner-city canals. But before long I realized that such imagery, although it was fine for the family album, was hardly the kind to put steak and potatoes on my family's table. A beautiful sunset over the lake was just a beautiful sunset--no more.
Natural instinct had served to aim my sights much higher, and those Farm Security photographs with all their power were still pushing my thoughts around. Before long I had deserted the waterfronts, skyscrapers and canals for Chicago's south side--the city's sprawling impoverished black belt. And there among the squalid, rickety tenements that housed the poor, a new way of seeing and feeling opened up to me.
A photograph I made of an ill-dressed black child wandering in a trash-littered alley and another of two aged men warming themselves at a bonfire during a heavy snowfall pleased me more than any I had made. They convinced me that even the cheap camera I had bought was capable of making a serious comment on the human condition.
Subconsciously, I was moving toward the documentary field, and Chicago's south side was a remarkably pitiful place to start. The worst of it was like bruises on the face of humanity.
A collection of photographs I had taken in the impoverished area of the black belt came to the attention of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a cultural foundation established by its namesake to aid promising blacks and Southern whites. Writers, painters, sculptors and scholars had been recipients of fellowships--but never a photographer. I was considered to be promising, so my work was sent to be judged by a jury of Chicago's most esteemed white photographers and, to a man, they turned thumbs down.