LOOK – American Gothic

Yesterday’s LOOK photo has been deemed too controversial for this blog and was removed yesterday afternoon.  Be sure to check out the complete award winning photo essay about autisim by photographer Gihan Tubbeh.   Last week, a photograph  of two men kissing caused some people to cancel their WAPO newspaper subscriptions.  

Photographer Gordon Parks took this photograph titled “American Gothic” in 1942 while working for the Farm Security Administration in DC.     His editor, Roy Stryker, said that the photo was “an indictment of America” and would get all the FSA photographers fired.   Read the March 2006 obit from NYT photography critic Andy Grundberg.  Excerpt below.

Perhaps his best-known photograph, which he titled “American Gothic,” was taken during his brief time with the agency; it shows a black cleaning woman named Ella Watson standing stiffly in front of an American flag, a mop in one hand and a broom in the other. Mr. Parks wanted the picture to speak to the existence of racial bigotry and inequality in the nation’s capital. He was in an angry mood when he asked the woman to pose, having earlier been refused service at a clothing store, a movie theater and a restaurant.

Mr. Parks credited his first awareness of the power of the photographic image to the pictures taken by his predecessors at the Farm Security Administration, including Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein and Ben Shahn. He first saw their photographs of migrant workers in a magazine he picked up while working as a waiter in a railroad car. “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs,” he told an interviewer in 1999. “I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”

37 Comment

  • Why is that man wearing a dress?

  • I have to say, I find it a little disheartening that PoP was forced to remove an artistic, award-winning photo and that people canceled their subscriptions to WaPo over the photo of two men kissing. Have we really become so overly sensitive that we can’t appreciate beautiful documentations of daily life without being somehow offended by their content? The assertion that the photo of the boy in the bathtub is pornographic is insane to me. The photo essay documents the child’s life. One part of that life is bathing. How is that inappropriate?

    To me, there’s a direct connection between forcing PoP to remove that photo and the people canceling their subscriptions to WaPo — ironic, since I’m guessing the two demographics are extremely different. Regardless of your position on gay marriage, it’s happening in the District, so to show a fairly chaste kiss between a newly-married couple seems the perfect way to illustrate that. Just as a beautifully composed photo of a boy living his life is a great way to tell his story. It makes me really sad that people put their own oversensitivities above that desire to tell a story.

    • Agreed and yes America, DC definitely included, has become overly soft and sensitive to pretty much everything.

    • You think the PoP was “forced” to take it down? Come on. He chose to take it down.

      And no, I didn’t find it objectionable but I also didn’t find it artistic.

  • All of that drama yesterday was ridiculous and absurd. I agree completely with what Camille said.

    Anyway, today’s is a very powerful image and a great selection.

  • Seriously? Comparing the commenters’ reaction yesterday to the totally inappropriate picture of a naked autistic boy to that of 27 people cancelling their subscription to WaPo as the result of two men kissing? Not even close to being the same thing.

    A picture of two men kissing, while offensive to some, is not exploitive in any way, shape, or form. Taking a picture of a naked child is not only offensive, it’s distasteful, and it should be illegal, regardless of whether the purpose is “art”. An autistic child cannot consent to having his picture taken naked, nor can a minor (child under the age of 18). If a man took a picture of a woman naked without her consent it would be a crime. Taking a picture of a naked child, who cannot provide consent, is also a crime.

    Stop calling this art, people.

    • Agreed – does the fact that the kid has autism mean that his naked body is fair game to be photographed and shown to the public without his consent? Why should he not have the same protections as other people?

      • That’s why courts appoint guardians….for responsible adults to use judgment. If the guardian of this child consented, then everyone who disagrees can go and take on their own handicapped child and make their own decisions.

        I think seeing an autistic person as a “person”, even in photographs where s/he can’t consent, humanizes a subset of the population that was typically locked/hidden away for lack of understanding. Part of the power of photography is bearing witness. Bearing witness to humanity in all it’s forms. This is humanity. It is not sexually explicit.

        • “Part of the power of photography is bearing witness. Bearing witness to humanity in all it’s forms. This is humanity. It is not sexually explicit.”

          Well said.

    • What about this photo? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TrangBang.jpg

      I suppose this pulitzer prize winning photo should never have been taken either. Best to not raise awareness, huh?

  • Incredible. I fail to see how a photograph of an adolescent taking a bath is considered pornography, there was no “explicit description or exhibition of sexual activity” (def. Oxford English). It was photo journalism of a sort. I believe the real reason folks are so upset is because this child suffers from autism and that is something most folks just prefer to not see, know or think about – Thank you very much! It was about as sexually explicit as the water fountains in front of the LOC…no actually those are much more titillating. Come on people, sex is everywhere nowadays…is this pornographic?…no it’s not. Yes, POP does not tend to be particularly “cutting edge” but then again that photo was not particularly cutting edge was it? That being said, I did think that the photo was a little risque for this blog only because it tends to be more about people kvetching because they don’t have a specialty cheese store or a high end cocktail bar close to them…they have to go at least a few blocks (gasp!) or shock and horror! that someone got shot in their vicinity and “for the amount I paid – I thought it was safe around here!”
    So, sorry PoP, I used to enjoy the occasional trip through “Entitlementland” and often is a good way to get some information but no more, it’s just a morass of self righteous indignation and anymore it just makes me dislike my “cyber neighbors”.
    Good luck on your endeavor but count me out.

    • Hear hear! I agree 100% with the latter part of this Post.

    • Doesn’t “self righteous indignation” also describe your post? Point being, we’re all here to give our opinions, however whacky to someone reading them.

      That you’re dropping PoP because of it is directly akin to readers dropping Washington Post for printing a photo of a married couple kissing. Neither makes sense to me.

      And I think you’re on to something that people were upset at the photo because the boy is autistic: the boy can’t give consent and probably has no idea his nude photo was posted on the internet or that it was even taken. That’s a problem for me – and I think a lot of people.

    • well… we here in Entitlementland will miss you “toes.” Hopefully you find some better cyber friends in your next journey.

  • 27 people allegedly cancelled their Washington Post subscription because of the front page photo of two men kissing. TWENTY-SEVEN. Circulation is around 673,000. I’m sure 27 crackpots cancel their subscription every day due to lack of coverage of puppies, too much emphasis on sports, and disagreement over any given random Op-ed piece (for comparison’s sake, based on available circulation data, the Post loses about an average of 80 subscribers a day). I don’t see how that is news, or why people even repeat it / cite it other than how I’ve done above. It is literally NOT NEWS and NOT IMPORTANT.

    In addition, the fact tha they nanny state readers of this blog objected to the autism photo is also NOT NEWS, NOT IMPORTANT, and NOT UNEXPECTED. People that read this blog and post comments here are really the most fragile and over-reacting of all creatures.

    • U have missed the point. The entire reason PoP created a comments section was so his readers could react (you might say over-react) to his posts. Dont complain when we do that.

      (totally agree on your WaPo point)

    • If only 27 out of 673,000 subscribers canceled because of that particular photo, then I kinda think that is news. 672,973 people didn’t get bothered enough to cancel. I find that interesting.

  • God, this ignorance and intolerance is just pathetic. The autism photo is so NOT sexual. Anyone who thinks it is has some serious issues, their own sexual thoughts about it being the most disturbing. As for a photo of two men kissing: zzzzzzzzzz. SERIOUSLY? With the images of real and fabricated carnage on TV shows, in the news, and in papers every day from wars and crimes and American’s obsession with violence-as-art-form (apparently considered perfectly suitable for children in the prime time slots), people are going to take offense at a cute little kiss? Embarrassed and mortified for American “values.”

    • what an ignorant statement! I’m not saying you are ignorant… but… come on!

      anyone who thinks that photo was inappropriate has a problem with their own sexual thoughts? hahaha. good lord!

  • I saw the photo and immediately thought it inappropriate at best, clicked over to see the whole essay and agree that as part of a photo essay it was – still inappropriate. Not really pornographic, but certainly borderline and unnecessarily graphic. Yes, bathing is part of every day life, but so is urinating and defacating, things generally done in private.

    I think the idea was to show his autistic fascination with the running water, which could have been done equally well with some cropping. Exposing the buttocks of a 12 year old boy in that pose is simply wrong.

    Would any – sorry don’t know the PC term for “normal” these days – normal 12 year old boy allow such a photo of himself to be published? Would you want such a photo of yourself as a young man published all over? If you think the answer is no, then this photo should not have been published either.

    Regardless of that, the photo taken out of the context of the entire essay was meant to shock and generate controversy – which clearly worked.

    I agree that the outcry was a bit rabid, but those objecting did have a valid point of view and this does not signal the advent of an artistic “dark age.” The original poster made a bad (or calculatedly bad) decision in choosing that to represent an entire photo series. PoP did the right thing in removing it. Hope we’ve all learned something and can let it go.

  • Even if it was not pornographic, it was certainly not something I’d consider work-safe. A disclaimer should have been inserted at the least so those of us at work could wait until we got home to view.

  • By the way, to my knowledge, nobody “forced” PoP to do anything. He made a choice on his own to remove the photo based on feedback from the “fragile and over-reactive” posters.

  • Why do I think that the people objecting to this photo are the same ones who are passing out pictures of aborted fetuses?

  • victoria, get a life. the photo essay on the autisic kid is wonderful. the only thing I have learned is that you are a silly cow.

  • Just don’t show a picture of someone’s dog tied up for 3 minutes while they run into Whole Foods to get a gallon of milk. THEN I will stop reading.

  • I have to say, the people hanging their indignation on the fact that the child couldn’t give his consent to being photographed have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. If their logic is correct, then we need to round up the posse, go find Anne Geddes, and throw her in the clink for being a serial child smut peddler. Seriously people. Children, by definition, cannot give legal consent to anything. But the point is that their legal guardians, including this boy’s parents, can.

    • No, the point is that anyone who complains loudly enough can get their way. The more ludicrous the complaint the better, because then sane, rationale individuals won’t think that the ludicrous complaint needs to be rebuffed, and then the ridiculous complainer can get their way more easily (esp. if it involves some chicken-sh** blogger or city offical that just wants to not be bothered). On a separte note, this is almost exclusively a blog for the complainers nowadays: See, e.g., band practices that occur in the early evening, pre-exisiting light poles that are in an alley behind one’s house, bikers who are upset they can’t go through red lights when a cop is watching, coffee house complainers, billboard discussions, etc., etc. And its not hard to see why: they generate the most traffic, and hence the most page views, and hence the most revenue.

      • That’s the point of all journalism, which doesn’t exactly make it a bad thing. Talking about controversy, even if it doesn’t resolve anything, opens you to a different opinion.

        No one is born with a complete understanding of what is reasonable. It’s up to society to define what is acceptable and what is not. That’s why a blog is so vastly superior than a newspaper or a TV –the people have an opportunity to respond and add/argue with the point of the story or the participants in the story. That’s how we come to a greater understanding. That’s how we prevent the BS of the world from overtaking our lives.

        Arguing isn’t unhealthy. Name calling is unhealthy.

  • i thought this was about the man in the womans dress…

  • The WOMAN featured in the photo is Ms. Ella Watson. She was (assuming she is no longer with us) a DC resident and a real-live human being. Interested parties may find the entire photo profile of Ms. Watson on the Library of Congress Web site.

    I have been fascinated by this photo (and the story behind it) since I was introduced to it last year. Gordon Parks, true to the charge of this `40s era photo assignment for FSA, did more than just capture this woman’s image at work he also captured several images of her home life. I was inspired to attempt to locate her Logan Circle-area home, which, based on the street-level scenery from a picture taken from Ms. Watson’s bedroom window, I am assuming was in the 1400 block of 11th Street, NW (on the southwest corner near P ST; diagonally across the street from what is now “Veranda on P”). It’s tragic that this historic photo (not to mention its groundbreaking photographer!) was completely glossed over in favor of shitty rants from a bunch of dipshits….

    • Had the entire photo profile by this great photographer been shown, at least three people would have claimed Ms. Watson was being wrongfully exploited, and two people would have demanded the photos be pulled for being Maid Porn. And of course one idiot would suggest setting fire to PoP.

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