The exhibition showcases a previously unexplored body of the acclaimed photographer’s work, capturing an indelible view of World War II–era Pittsburgh
Left to right: Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006), “The cooper’s room where the large drums and containers are reconditioned. Here a workman lifts a drum from a boiling lye solution which has cleaned from it grease and dust particles.”, March 1944; “Two workmen pulling pans of red-hot grease that has just been poured from a cooking kettle. After it is cooled it can be lifted out in solid chunks and carried away on flat cars.”, March 1944; “A workman at the cooper plant.”, March 1944; “Harvey Turner, William Schwartz and William B. Wilson, grease makers.”, September 1946. Courtesy Gordon Parks Foundation.
Pittsburgh, PA (March 14, 2022) – From April 30 to August 7, 2022, Carnegie Museum of Art presents Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946, an in-depth presentation into Parks’s photographs of the Penola, Inc. grease plant in Pittsburgh and its workers who supplied essential goods to U.S. troops during World War II. This examination of an important chapter in Parks’s landmark career explores a narrative that is seldom told and still resonates today. The exhibition, which features more than 50 photographs that have not yet been seen by the public, will be paired with special programming, community events, and a publication featuring essays by artist LaToya Ruby Frazier and writer Mark Whitaker, among others.
By the early 1940s, Parks, a self-taught photographer who grew up in rural Kansas during segregation, had established himself as a photographer who freely navigated the fields of press and commercial photography with an unparalleled humanist perspective. It was at this time that Parks’s work caught the eye of Roy Stryker, who launched the documentary photography program at the U.S. Farm Security Administration. Stryker was soon hired by Standard Oil to capture the Penola grease plant as part of a public relations effort during World War II. In March 1944 and September 1946, Parks was tasked by Stryker to travel to Pittsburgh to photograph the plant, its workers, and the range of their activities manufacturing “Eisenhower grease,” a new, critical material that fueled U.S. troop efforts toward the end of World War II to defeat Nazi Germany. Parks’s visit coincided with the height of the plant’s productivity—at the time, it was nearly double that of its next-largest competitor, and it would ultimately produce nearly five million pounds of lubricant to support the country’s war effort. The resulting photographs—dramatically staged and lit, striking in their compositions— foreground the importance of the story of industry and war preparation in the U.S., which was a source of pride for the workers and people of Pittsburgh. Photographs in this exhibition will have visitors may recognize acquaintances, family members, or even themselves in these images.
Parks’s highly anticipated second visit to Pittsburgh in 1946 was covered by local newspaper. The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s most prominent Black newspapers, which sent its preeminent photographer, Charles “Teenie” Harris, to document the event. In 2001, Carnegie Museum of Art acquired Harris’s archive, which chronicles life in Pittsburgh from the 1930s through the 1970s. Among the more than 70,000 negatives are Harris’s pictures of Gordon Parks. Like Harris, Parks’s photographs during his time in Pittsburgh endure as a record of humanity and everyday life in the mid-20th century, telling countless stories that have been overlooked. Although Parks’s images of Penola, Inc. were intended as marketing tools to help humanize the corporation’s public image, his pictures speak to the importance of making individual experience visible. Parks’s documentation of workers divided by roles, race, and class is a snapshot of persistent issues in labor and industry. Far from an impassive observer, Parks wanted his photographs to convey meaning and help improve the lives of his subjects, many of whom were discriminated against because of their race. He would continue this approach in his next position as the first African American staff photographer at LIFE magazine.
Dan Leers, curator of photography at Carnegie Museum of Art says, “Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946 is a deep dive into an iconic photographer’s work during a momentous time in Pittsburgh. Through his photographs, Parks celebrated the lives of individual workers, capturing their skill, dedication, and camaraderie as they supplied materials for U.S. troops on the front lines during wartime. The poignancy and respect with which Parks photographed his subjects is breathtaking, unforgettable, and certainly resounding.”
This exhibition is made possible through a partnership between Carnegie Museum of Art and the Gordon Parks Foundation. Gordon Parks: Pittsburgh Grease Plant, 1944/1946, the accompanying catalogue published by Steidl that includes more than 100 previously unpublished photographs, will be available for purchase at stores.carnegiemuseums.org/carnegie-museum-of-art
In addition, the exhibition will be accompanied by the following programming:
May 19, 2022, at 6 p.m.
Exhibition Reception and Gordon Parks: Pittsburgh Grease Plant, 1944/1946 Book Launch Galleries and Carnegie Museum of Art Theater
Join Dan Leers, curator of photography at Carnegie Museum of Art, and Mark Whitaker, author
of Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance, for a conversation about the publication and exhibition. Event is pay what you wish to attend; register at CMOA.org/exhibition/gordon-parks.
May 26, 2022, at 6 p.m.
In Conversation: Neighbors
How do we find ourselves when our histories are in an archive? With a focus on photographers Charles “Teenie” Harris and Gordon Parks, artist and co-founder of BOOM Concepts
DS Kinsel will facilitate a multigenerational conversation that contends with the experience of finding family members and community histories in the museum’s exhibitions and collections. Event is pay what you wish to attend; register at CMOA.org/exhibition/gordon-parks.
Learn more about at Gordon Parks in Pittsburgh, 1944/1946 at: CMOA.org/exhibition/gordon-parks
Support is provided by the Virginia Kaufman Fund and The Fellows of Carnegie Museum of Art.
Carnegie Museum of Art is supported by The Heinz Endowments and Allegheny Regional Asset District. Carnegie Museum of Art receives state arts funding support through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Fort Pitt Capital, Highmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and Nova Chemicals
Health and Safety
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh has continued to follow government and public health guidance to keep staff and visitors safe. On February 25, 2022, The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) classified Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington, and Westmoreland counties as having low community infection levels. Considering this assessment and additional guidelines by the CDC, masks are optional for visitors to Carnegie Museums. Masks are available on-site if you should need one. Visitors experiencing COVID-19 symptoms are kindly asked to remain at home. To learn more about our Health and Safety measures, please visit cmoa.org/visit/health-safety.
Carnegie Museum of Art creates experiences that connect people to art, ideas, and one another. The museum is committed to global engagement and regional advancement. We champion creativity and its importance to society with experiences that welcome, inspire, challenge, and inform. Our core activities—collecting, conserving, presenting, and interpreting works of art—make those experiences possible. Our collection of over 34,000 works emphasizes art, architecture, photography, and design from the 19th century to the present. In addition, the museum houses the archive of more than 70,000 images by Pittsburgh photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, whose work comprises one of the most detailed and intimate records of Black life in America. Through its programming, exhibitions, and publications, Carnegie Museum of Art frequently explores the role of art and artists in confronting key social issues of our time, combining and juxtaposing local and global perspectives. One of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Art was founded by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1895. To learn more, please call 412.622.3131 or visit CMOA.org.
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