John E. Dowell, Jr Sam Gilliam Felrath Hines Gordon Parks Lorna Simpson Richard Hunt Romare Bearden John Woodrow Wilson Robert Colescott Adrian Piper Renée Stout Eldzier Cortor Richard Mayhew Carl Pope
African American Art Text Graphic

Gordon Parks

Big Momma and Boy (Bessie and Little Richard the Morning After She Scalded Her Husband), 1967/8

Gordon Parks’s compelling photograph of Bessie Fontenelle and her youngest son Richard, Jr., was published by Life magazine on March 8, 1968, as part of a special feature on blacks and poverty called A Harlem Family (or At the Poverty Board). Parks’s essay and twenty-five photographs vividly depict the hardships of a Harlem family living under deplorable conditions. Taken shortly after Bessie violently retaliated against her husband’s abuse, this image, which appears on the opening spread, captures both her love for her son and her deep frustration and exhaustion—the dichotomy of a life torn between hope and despair. Her sadness is tempered by her child’s wide-eyed innocence. The article begins with this admonition: “What I want/What I am/What you force me to be/is what you are,” suggesting that we are all part of one global family. Sadly, only young Richard survived the family’s hardships and grew up to escape poverty.

Parks was a modern Renaissance man, recognized not only as a groundbreaking photojournalist, but also as a noted writer, filmmaker, and composer. In 1941, he was the first photographer to be named a Julius Rosenwald Foundation Fellow; in 1942 he became the first African American hired by Roy Stryker for the Farm Security Administration; and in 1943 he followed Stryker to the Office of War Information (OWI) and subsequently to the Standard Oil Photography Project in New Jersey. In 1952 twenty-eight vintage prints from the latter project were given by Stryker to Indiana University (see other works). While Parks’s photo-documentary style during this period was influenced by other FSA photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, his status as a minority gave him a unique perspective, particularly on the lives of African Americans.

His biggest impact, though, came not in his early photo-documentary projects, but his work as a magazine photographer. Parks was hired by Life magazine in 1948 as their first African American photographer. During his tenure with the magazine, he published the story of the Fontenelle family and similarly moving photo-essays—on an impoverished Brazilian boy named Flavio Da Silva and a young Harlem gang member named Leonard “Red” Jackson. For Parks the camera was more than simply a tool for recording society, it became a "weapon against poverty, racism, and discrimination.

Romare Bearden, The Family

Gordon Parks
American, 1912-2006
Big Momma and Boy (Bessie and Little Richard the Morning After She Scalded Her Husband), 1967/8 (printed ca. 1972)
Gelatin silver print; published by Abrams Original Editions: Photography
Image/sheet: h. 13 x w. 19 1/4 " (33.0 x 48.8 cm)
Gift of the G. W. Einstein Comp., Inc. in honor of
Thomas T. Solley, IU Art Museum 91.29

Other Works:


Romare Bearden
Robert Colescott
John E. Dowell, Jr
Sam Gilliam
Felrath Hines
Richard Hunt
Gordon Parks
Adrian Piper
Lorna Simpson
John Woodrow Wilson
Renée Stout
Eldzier Cortor
Richard Mayhew
Carl Pope