Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh gives a much-needed look at the black workers behind the World War II-era industry | Fine Arts Pittsburgh

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Photo: Tom Little

Types of installation Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946 at the Carnegie Museum of Art, 2022

A photo on display at the Carnegie Art Museum shows a dozen workers looking out of a dirty freight elevator, their eyes staring straight into the camera. Their faces show determination. 1944, and these people are working at Pittsburgh Grease Works, a huge operation that took two entire neighborhoods in the Strip area and was the largest lubricant company in the world.

Keep in mind that Pittsburgh was considered the “Arsenal of Democracy” at the time. Approximately 40% of the population worked in factories that were in full swing producing 90 million tons of steel for the union states during World War II. The city gave the war such a priority that it postponed the implementation of its inaugural anti-smoke legislation for five years. As they say: “Smoke is work.”

click to enlarge View of the installation at Gordon Park in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946 at the Carnegie Museum of Art, 2022 - PHOTO: TOM LITTLE

Photo: Tom Little

Types of installation Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946 at the Carnegie Museum of Art, 2022

Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946, the latest exhibition to open at the CMOA is a spectacular window to Pittsburgh during World War II. The CMOA collaborated with the Gordon Parks Foundation to organize the show, which coincides with the release of a book published by Steidl. The photos are an idea of ​​the development of Parks, as well as adjustments to how the house was visualized.

Back to those people in the elevator. Parks painted them twice. He wanted to make it clear that these workers were producing lubricants on which the Allies relied for the smooth operation of their tanks, locomotives, submarines and bombers.

In the second photo, cargo doors lock on workers from above and below like a set of jaws, evoking the idea that the industry is consuming its workers. Once an experienced chronicler, Parks photographed with great intent and left little to chance. He slammed the shutter before the door closed completely, making the worker’s faces visible. The photographs function as a portrait, and their sequence leads to the numbness of handicrafts, the notion that a person has fallen into the trap of a daily cycle – work, get dirty, go home, repeat.

Parks was an outstanding chronicler of black life and by the age of 29 had earned a name as an advanced photojournalist by receiving a scholarship from the Farm Security Administration. How Life Parks, the magazine’s first black staff photographer, sought to draw the nation’s attention to segregation and the civil rights movement. According to the Gordon Parks Foundation website, Parks saw the camera as a “weapon” against racism, poverty and all forms of inequality.

Parks later turned into a Renaissance man, writing novels and memoirs, writing music and directing many films, including the so-called classic Blaxploitation, as Val and Superfly, also as Learning tree, The 1969 work is considered the first major Hollywood film made by an African-American.

The park did not work Life when he visited Pittsburgh, however. He was contracted to develop promotional materials for Standard Oil, which sought to restore its public image after Congress began investigating its business ties with Germany. In response, they launched an extensive advertising campaign that included demonstrations of chemistry in the lobby of department stores and a stellar photo team led by Roy Stryker of the FSA. In 1944, he commissioned Parks to photograph the Pittsburgh Lubrication Plant and again in 1946 to produce material for leaflets and photo exhibitions, which Standard Oil placed in galleries across the country.

Although the context of Parks ’work may complicate these paintings, he also explains them. They are a product of balancing; The parks were clearly trying to both complete the task and blow it up. It was necessary to tick and make certain compromises. There are no injuries, quarrels or despair in the photos of the Park, which most likely flourished in such difficult working conditions.

However, it should be noted that photojournalists of that era also did not focus on workers’ rights. America was at war, and stealing dirt was out of fashion. In fact, a lot Life ‘Wartime coverage – such as Margaret Burke White’s story of working women – looks more romantic and propagandistic than Parks’ photographs.

Many of the photographs taken by Park were staged, but not to their detriment, and although some photographs turn out to be far-fetched, most testify to the true humanity of the worker.

Taken as a whole, Parks ’photographs ultimately honor the black workforce of the plant, making visible their plight and pointing out what he could not directly portray. The hierarchy and segregation of Lubricants becomes clear in the staged openness of plant management. In it, five white men in fitted suits hover around a decorated table, pretending to discuss important things. Their shirts are as clean as bleach. The scene acts as a stark contrast to photos of black workers handling alkali and hot grease without protective gear.

“Most of the staff in the production units were Negroes,” Parks wrote in a letter to Stryker. “An attempt was made to minimize my lighting [them] so that all nationalities can be integrated into history ”.

At the heart of this exhibition is the notion that visibility is power. “If it had been left to politicians, military officers and businessmen, this vital black workforce, which contributed five million pounds of Eisenhower grease during World War II, would have gone unnoticed and unrecognized,” said photographer Latoya Ruby. Fraser in an essay for an accompanying book to the exhibition.

Parks was well aware of how people could be made invisible, and worked to keep those people from being. We were lucky that he photographed them, no matter who paid his bills.

Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946. Continues until August 7. Carnegie Art Museum. 4400 Forbes Ave., Auckland. Included in the entrance to the museum.

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