It was 1944, and the workers at the Penola Grease Plant, on the edge of Pittsburgh’s Strip District, might not have known who Gordon Parks was. But the young black photographer was about to capture them on film for posterity.
Today, the late Parks is remembered as a pioneering photojournalist and filmmaker – the first black director to direct a film for a Hollywood studio. Many of the dramatic images he shot of black and white men at work in Penola during and just after World War II have never been seen by the public. But starting Saturday, they are at the center of a “Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946”, a new exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Parks, a Kansas native, began his photography career shooting fashion in Chicago and documenting Depression-era laborers for the US Farm Security Administration, under famed photographer Roy Stryker. It was Stryker who hired him for a private sector commission: essentially, a public relations project for Standard Oil, to show how its Penola subsidiary was contributing to the Allied war effort. The plant made “Eisenhower grease”, a petroleum product that provided lubrication and waterproofing for military vehicles.
Parks shot at the factory in March 1944 and again in September 1946, said Dan Leers, Carnegie’s curator of photography. He took hundreds of dramatic black-and-white photos, many of which spotlight the factory’s black workers, often in a way that subtly suggests racial segregation at the factory.
But only one of these images is part of his photographic legacy: an iconic low-angle shot of a black worker lifting a barrel of boiling lye solution against a backdrop of steam.
Leers tracked down more images, most from the Gordon Parks Foundation, and others from sources including the Library of Congress and the George Eastman Museum. The exhibit includes more than 50 shots from both the upper level of the sprawling factory, where chemicals were mixed, and the ground floor, where they were heated and metal drums were filled for shipment . The collection includes both group portraits and individual portraits of the workers as well as images of them in action. Leers said that while this was commercial work for Parks, the results reflected his humanistic approach.
“He says one of the best ways to understand someone’s character is to photograph them in their environment at work,” Leers said. “These are composite photographs…and yet there is something very beautiful and insightful about the photos he makes of these individuals doing their jobs or stopping and posing with equipment they are using.”
“These portraits, I think, they help tell the story of the work, but they also help tell the story of the city, they help tell the story of the industry in general,” Leers added. .
Parks was born in 1912, the last of 15 children. He grew up in segregated Fort Scott Kansas, and as a young man worked as a railroad porter, among other things.
“He knew what it meant to work a day, and he had a real appreciation for that and so I think these portraits he did were his way of honoring those people and the work that they do,” Leers said.
After the war, Parks became LIFE magazine’s first black photographer, as well as Vogue’s first black photographer. He was that rare photographer who contributed to the canons of civil rights activism, celebrity photography, and fashion. Leers compares his career to that of Pittsburgh’s Charles “Teenie” Harris, who documented black life here for the Pittsburgh Courier for decades. The new exhibit includes an enlargement of Harris’ photo of Parks visiting the Courier’s printing presses in the 1940s, when, Leers said, Parks was already well known to black audiences.
In 1969, Parks achieved further distinction when Warner Bros.-Seven Arts hired him to write and direct the big-screen adaptation of his semi-autobiographical novel “The Learning Tree,” making him the first black person to write it. do for a large studio. . Even more famously, he directed “Shaft,” the 1971 hit action film about a black private detective who is widely credited with starting the so-called Blaxploitation genre.
Parks died in 2006.
The Penola Plant (also known simply as the Pittsburgh Grease Plant) remained open until 1999, according to a state historical marker at the site, at 33rd and Smallman Streets. Leers said the Carnegie hopes to hear from visitors who know people in Parks’ photos, or even who worked at the plant themselves.
“Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946” runs through August 7. More information here.