While it is by no means clear to me that his photographic work was particularly seminal or important in the history of photography, it is crystal clear that he's socially, culturally, very important. He did a lot of work on race in America, and it is at least credible to say that he was very influential on that front. He took pictures, he wrote, he made movies. He composed music and poetry. He was, obviously, some kind of freakish polymath.
Let's start out by saying that he worked for Roy Stryker at the FSA/OWI, and then later at Standard Oil. This was a relationship that went on for 5 or 6 years. Not a long time, but enough. Stryker was a propagandist, plain and simple, and he was a good one. This does not mean that I disapprove of Stryker, particularly. When I say "propaganda" I mean it in a neutral way, you could as well say "strong story-telling" and it would mean more or less the same thing. What I mean is that Stryker was expert at -- it was literally his job for 15 years -- shaping a visual story to suit an end. There is no doubt that Parks learned from Stryker, and indeed it shows in the rest of his career.
To be quite clear, let me state it baldly: this is propaganda that the USA was in sore need of, and I am pleased as anything that Parks was able to do it.
There is this enduring idea that single iconic photos change the world. If you're me, you have some vague notions of this sort:
- Nick Ut's picture Napalm Girl ended the Vietnam War.
- Ansel Adams's photos of Yosemite led to the National Park System.
- Gene Smith's picture of Tomoko halted pollution in Minamata.
What actually changes this is a gradual normalization of ideas, a gradual shift in identity. While things are not perfect by any means in the world, we have shifted over the last 60-70 years. Corporations still pollute, but the general social consensus is that, when they do, they're evil, they're perverse. Racism is still pervasive, but again, the rednecks who do overtly racist things are evil weirdos. What we collectively, generally, consider "normal", has changed. Homosexuality, recently considered evil and perverse, is now rather more broadly considered normal.
Society, now as always, contains a complete spectrum of ideas. Change is not a mass exodus from one ideology to another, but is shift in where the median lies. Behaviors and ideas once considered normal, or acceptable, by most are now considered weird, wrong, by most. Correspondingly, behaviors and ideas once considered weird, wrong, and now normal and acceptable. By "most" people. Every mainstream position from 1980, 1960, or 1150, still has a group of adherents but it's probably smaller than it was in its heyday.
These changes are wrought slowly. LIFE and TIME did a lot of the spade work in their time. Some of the essays Parks did for LIFE are incredible, this is some seriously hot stuff. It's not clear it would be publishable at all today, in our twitchy press environment. It's possible that there is real motion in a retrograde direction now. We certainly see a lot of effort being expended to normalize an anti-Muslim attitude. Using, of course, exactly the same methods.
What Parks seems to have been up to is pretty straightforward, seen through the lens of Roy Stryker's approach to things. He's humanizing The American Negro from a variety of angles. Harlem Gang Leader, Black Muslims, and some ordinary families. I have not read the stories, but I am pretty sure that the narrative is one of normalizing. These are people, first and foremost, with some hopes and dreams and troubles that you, a White American, can identify with, and others that are somewhat mysterious to you.
This is basic stuff. Say some things which are true, which are identifiable, which connect with the reader. Then say some other stuff, the payload if you will. The payload might be true, it might not be. If you're Goebbels demonizing The Jew, your payload is probably some untrue stuff. If you're Gordon Parks trying to humanize The Negro, your payload is probably some true stuff. The mechanism is the same, though. How objectively "true" the payload is doesn't matter.
And then you keep it up. After a while, your readers have the idea that this is normal. They probably think they dreamed some of this stuff up themselves.
This, as far as I know, is the mechanism by which social change occurs. We'd like to think that social change can occur, that we can improve ourselves as a species, as a nation, as a company, as a bowling league, by rational discussion, through reason and common sense. I think that is false. We change collectively when someone has seized the microphone, and is delivering a carefully calibrated message. In days of yore, the microphone was frequently held by religious leaders, tribal leaders, feudal leaders. It's the media, today.
A wrapper of things we know to be true, a generous ladle of things we wish were true, all carrying a payload of things the speaker wants us to believe. A story shaped to gently shove us this way or that, a touch so light we don't really feel it.
It doesn't matter if you're trying to teach soldiers to hate the enemy, or teach white people to accept non-white people as humans, the mechanisms are the same.
Photographs play a huge role here, because they are things we know to be true, in their own peculiar way. But they do not do it through the single iconic picture. They work through the prosaic, the mundane, through repetition. Nick Ut's photo doesn't work because it's unusual, but because it's normal. Perhaps a little more shocking, but by the time Napalm Girl was published, the public had been seeing various horrors from Vietnam for 5 years or more.
I find it fascinating that we (or at least I) tend to associate a picture taken toward the end with the idea that this is the picture that did it, that effected the change. My theory is that, while it's the steady normalizing drip of pictures and words that actually do the work, the one we remember when it's all over is whichever one we saw most recently that was kind of striking. There are some documented memory biases that can have this result, the "Peak-end rule", and the "recency effect" at least.
This does leave open two questions that I think are important:
1. What, if anything, can be done about the pockets of "weirdos"? Is it just a question of keeping the pressure up, and whittling away at them?
2. What about the built-in stuff? An organization can be, for instance, sexist as anything without containing a single person who is sexist. The sexism is baked into the rules, the shared culture, the underlying ideas. Usually it's hidden under various veneers, so that the people in the organization don't even notice it.
Do the same mechanisms apply, perhaps targeted differently? How do I make a photo essay that addresses the fact "we've found that former race-car drivers make the best sales people for our product" almost entirely excludes women from the sales team? And if so, would it work? What social norm can be moved to address these things?
Do pictures work here, too?