Writing with Light: Styles and Influences of Gordon Parks & Walker Evans

This is the first part of an ongoing series studying the writings of documentary photographers Gordon Parks and Walker Evans. It is gleaned from ongoing graduate school research at the Missouri School of Journalism, University of Missouri. It is also part of an upcoming presentation at the 29th VisCom Conference.

 

“It is easier to turn poets into business journalists than to turn bookkeepers into writers.”

— Henry Luce, founder, Time Inc.

Part One: Beginnings

Why did two influential documentary photographers also use writing as a tool to tell stories and convey their life experiences? 

Photographers Gordon Parks and Walker Evans produced popular and important documentary work during the 20th Century. But they also were prolific writers. They penned essays and books that stemmed from both literary aspirations, and as an outlet for storytelling separate from their photographs. This paper seeks to understand why these two award-winning photographers also took to writing, what they wrote about, whether their writing informed their photography, and vice versa.

Parks

Parks

While much study has been devoted to the photographic work by Parks and Evans, this paper seeks to begin to fill a void of research toward analyzing and understanding the two photographers’ roles as writers, what their literary influences were, and the writing styles they chose.

How did the time period in which they lived, and were covering as documentary photojournalists, influence their writing? Was Evans, for instance, merely a fantastic observer, and not strictly a social activist, as biographer Mellow argues (1999), or did he push his own life experiences and feelings into his written work? Did Parks thrust a quest for social justice into his written works during his time photographing the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s? Finally, were Parks’ and Evans’ writings only a footnote in their storied contributions to documentary photography, or should their writings hold a more prominent place?

As Americans, Gordon Parks and Walker Evans could possibly not have come from more different backgrounds. Parks was born Nov. 30, 1912, in rural Fort Scott, Kansas, near the Missouri state line, and about 290 miles southwest of Evans’ birthplace at St. Louis, where he was born Nov. 3, 1903.

That midwestern heritage might be the only commonality of their origins. Evans was born into a family of means and was able to study at well-to-do schools and institutions abroad (Mellow, 1999), while Parks endured poverty and racism and was self-educated (Parks, 1990), only to later achieve higher economic status.

Fish market, Birmingham, Alabama. 1936. (Walker Evans/FSA/Library of Congress)

Fish market, Birmingham, Alabama. 1936. (Walker Evans/FSA/Library of Congress)

Both men, however, would go on to photograph for the U.S. Government’s Farm Security Administration, including the influential Roy Stryker, and to produce photojournalism for the likes of LIFE and Fortune magazines. Parks was the first African-American photojournalist at both LIFE and Vogue magazines and the first to direct a Hollywood movie (Parks, 1990).

Evans’ name became synonymous with his collaboration with author James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an acclaimed book documenting tenant cotton farmers in the American South during the Great Depression. Literature and writing came to both men at different times in their life. But, for both, writing seemed to challenge and inspire them.

Next — Part Two: "A Desparate Search for Security" — Gordon Parks