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Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Something to Look At

Prompted by some guy's tweet I decided to look more closely at this photo:

This is pretty well known, it's Gordon Park's "American Gothic" and the history of its making is pretty much an open book. But let us examine the frame itself closely.

In the background, an American flag. 48 stars, not 50, and the arrangement of stars in the strict grid, rather than the offset pattern of the modern flag, marks it as archaic even to the casual viewer. Specifically the flag dates from between 1912 and 1959, but any American would likely mark it as "early or mid 20th century."

The wall behind the subject goes up very high indeed, 20+ feet. There is another object in the background, suggestive of furniture (a piano?) The sense is of an interior, with a very very high ceiling. Probably an institutional setting, maybe government (large flag.)

The subject, Ella Watson, is interestingly ambiguous here. At first glance neither gender nor race are obvious. This is not, I think, widely discussed in discussions of this widely discussed photo. Her face reads as gender-neutral, leaning to my eye slightly masculine. The haircut does not contradict this. The subject is clearly not white, but one might momentarily read her as, perhaps, of Indian rather than African descent. The hair suggests (but does not clinch) an African heritage.

(No, I do not mean "she looks like a dude" what I mean is precise: in this particular photograph, her gender reads as neutral-to-masculine)

While we know from other sources that this subject is an African-American woman, the photograph is non-committal. Some renderings make the subject appear darker, more obviously Black, but this is an artifice as the rest of the frame is also rendered absurdly contrasty in these variants. A little googling around shows many pictures of Ms. Watson rendered in the same faintly disturbing way, which is interesting in its own right.

Her femininity is clear upon inspection, but it does not leap off the page. You have to look to confirm it.

The subject holds up a broom. There is a mop in the background. Her dress is neat, clean, and demure, but appears to be missing several buttons. She looks almost but not quite at the camera, her gaze a little to the side and slightly lowered. Her expression is neutral, but not casual.

We generally do read this, fairly quickly, as a Black woman employed as janitorial staff. This is factually true, but also what we are likely to see in the picture.

Certainly the subject is upright, arguably proud. Her gaze is a fraction off "direct," but only a fraction. You could see it as a direct, proud, gaze. You could also see it as subtly submissive, just a hair to the side and down. There is ambiguity here.

In general I have to admit that the layers of ambiguity in this picture delight me.

I submit that her gender and race are not particularly clear in the picture, but that they are clarified by her dress and the tools of her trade. The subject might be a Black woman, the flag sets the date, the frame sets the scene, and finally the broom confirms it. Would an Indian man be sweeping in a government building in the USA in the mid 20th century? No, the subject is probably Black, and likely female. A moment's further examination confirms both. It only takes a moment, but there is, I think, a multi-step process which tends to arrive at the correct answer.

How would we read this?

There is a juxtaposition here, of the woman with the flag. There's very little else in the frame, and the character of the picture is at least consistent with deliberate posing. We may reasonably guess that the juxtaposition is a deliberate choice by the photographer. Gordon Parks is placing the woman next to a flag on purpose, and by so doing is proposing a relationship between them.

Artists do this a lot. They place two things next to one another, whether in a painting, across the gutter of a book, in a photo, etc. By so placing them, the artist proposes a relationship between them, proposes that the answer to the question "why are these things placed adjacent?" has a coherent answer.

More difficult is to determine the intended answer to that question, if any. In some cases the point is to raise the question, to open the viewer's mind to the question, and to suggest that perhaps the viewer might find their own answer if they put their mind to it.

The historical record is, I think, clear on what Parks intended. He means this as an indictment of America, of America's treatment of its Black citizens. This is not, to my mind, particularly clear in the frame.

We can reasonably guess that the woman in the picture is poor, and employed at low-paying manual labor. Is the flag intended to indicate the cause of this condition, or a potential solution to it? Or something else entirely? All we really know, faced with the picture, is that some relationship is probably meant.

Our tendency is to bring our own biases to a picture. If we see America as the oppressor of Black People, we might well tend to see the picture that way. The relationship of "is-oppressed-by" is, we imagine, clearly indicated by the frame itself. If we see America as the Great Hope For the Oppressed, we might see the relationship instead as "will-be-uplifted-by;" we might be equally convinced that this reading is obvious and incontrovertible. A particularly unkind reading might see the relationship as "is-a-loser-in-spite-of."

As both a cynic and a progressive I personally see the "is-oppressed-by" relationship, but that is neither here nor there.

This is not to say that all juxtapositions are necessarily this open. I think in some cases the meaning is made clear, at least I suppose so. I cannot, I confess, think of a particularly clear example at the moment. This photo, I think, leaves it open. Parks, I dare to speculate, hopes that we will find our way to the indictment. You could even argue that the indictment is the simplest reading, in some sense, and wave Occam's Razor about.

Unfortunately, this is not science. There is no singular "correct" reading of anything like this, there are only the ways that different people see it.


  1. Take a closer look at the broom. I don't think the subject is holding it. In fact the broom looks to be in the foreground with the subject set in between the broom and the mop. Could be Parks did this purposefully to give more depth to the image and/or to give the viewer more detail on the broom?

    1. The broom is certainly in front, but I think it's close to her? I feel like I am seeing a shadow cast by the broom on her dress that is consistent with a close spacing.

      That said, the broom and mop are definitely arranged so as to appear similar in size, which speaks to the formality of the picture!

      Parks clearly would have been willing to put the broom 6 feet forward if he'd thought it would make a stronger photo.

  2. I'm a Gordon Parks fan. What he achieved as a photographer was nothing less than heroic and necessary, amen.

    BUT, this is a terrible, dehumanizing photo on many levels. I guess that's ... the intention (I'm not familiar with the "history of its making").

    The framing is both gormless, and gratuitous. It renders the ostensible subject as a prop.

    I love off-kilter framing, but at the end of the day, it still has to work as a composition, regardless of whose name is on it.

    1. It is interesting how completely unlike virtually every other Parks photo we know this one is. He even has loads of more Parksian photos of Ms. Watson.

    2. Interesting backstory here (Artforum, FWIW). It would seem Mr. Parks was indeed using Mrs. Watson as a kind of living manikin in several shots, unnaturally posed according to the photographer's whims.

      The full-frame image as shown in the linked article is marginally better than the crop version above.

      Her employment file photo does her considerably more credit, as a living, breathing being with a soul and a personality.

  3. This may be stating the bleedin' obvious, but surely there is a conscious echo of the even more famous painting by Grant Wood, also titled "American Gothic"? The broom and the pitchfork are clearly distant relatives.

    OK. Obvious stated.