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Gordon Parks's Photos Show the Labor Keeping Weapons of World War II Greased

Mr. President, this is an oil war … Petroleum has made total war possible, for it has shrunk the world to the size of a small country… There is no weapon of offense or defense in modern war that does not require petroleum. 1

— Letter from William P. Cole, Chairman, Special Subcommittee on Petroleum Investigation, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, House of Representatives, to Franklin D. Roosevelt, October 22, 1942

In March 1944, early in the third year of America’s involvement in World War II, Gordon Parks traveled to Pittsburgh to photograph the Penola Grease Plant and its production of lubricants for the nation’s war effort. His pictures foreground the importance of people in telling the story of industry and war preparation in the United States. Then one of the best-known African American photographers, the self-taught Parks had seen much of the country, both good and bad. He had known poverty and personal loss as a child and had worked numerous jobs — among them busboy, big band jazz pianist, railcar waiter — that exposed him to people from all walks of life. He understood from personal experience how racism and discrimination prevailed in the U.S., and the trials that African Americans faced.

Parks went twice to Pittsburgh to photograph the grease plant. Two pictures from his second visit encapsulate much about his working methods and the way he chose to tell the story. In one, a group of men stand in a freight elevator waiting to be brought up three stories to where they will feed materials into towering grease kettles. There are few, if any, smiles on their faces as they wait to begin their shifts. At first glance, they all seem to wear the same outfits, but closer inspection reveals key differences and variations. Some of the men have on heavily stained shirts or overalls, while others wear cleaner clothes. Nearly all wear work boots; some have tucked their pants into their socks. All of the men wear hats, and here too there are subtle distinctions. Some have formal fedoras, while others sport “hog head” hats. This clothing would have signified much at the time, including different responsibilities, seniority, and even wages.

In the second picture of the sequence, the elevator gate has begun to close and several men are smiling for the camera. Their individuality and their varied expressions indicate Parks’s sensitivity to the Black grease makers — he fully understood the importance of their work and, to burnish the reputation of their and his employer, featured it prominently in his photographs for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (SONJ). The company had been formed after a 1911 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that broke up John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust, which then controlled 91 percent of U.S. oil production.

Parks was born in the small town of Fort Scott, Kansas, one year after the court’s momentous decision. 2 The youngest of fifteen children, he attended segregated schools in Fort Scott and personally experienced acts of racial violence. After the death of his mother in 1928, he went to live with his sister in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he supported himself through a series of jobs — one with the Civilian Conservation Corps — before marrying in 1933 and finding work as a dining car waiter on a train operating out of the city. Deeply moved by documentary photographs of Americans struggling during the Great Depression — which he saw in a magazine left on a train — Parks bought his first camera and taught himself to use it; he became adept at making pictures and in 1942 won a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, the first African American photographer to do so. This sent him to work for the Farm Security Administration in Washington, D.C., under Roy Stryker. 3 While shooting for the Office of War Information a year and a half later, Parks got his first taste of military life when he embedded with a squadron of Tuskegee airmen preparing for deployment to Europe.

Read entire article at Places Journal