“Photographing the grease plant at Pittsburgh was a pretty nasty job. It was nasty because in every building and on every floor grease was underfoot. The interiors in the older buildings were extremely dark and absorbed plenty of light, so it was necessary to use long extensions and many bulbs. The extensions, throughout the day, were covered with grease.”
-Gordon Parks, letter to Roy Stryker, March 1944
By 1944, Gordon Parks had established himself as a photographer who freely navigated the fields of press and commercial photography, with an unparalleled humanist perspective. That year, Roy Stryker—then head of the Public Relations department for The Standard Oil Company (New Jersey)—commissioned Parks to travel to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to document the Penola, Inc. Grease Plant.
Parks spent two years chronicling the plant’s industry by photographing its workers and the range of their activities. The resulting photographs, dramatically staged and lit and striking in their composition, showed the range of activities by Black and white workers, divided by roles, race, and class. The images were used as marketing material and made available to various publications. However, they served as much more than documentation of industry—enduring as an exploration of labor and its social and economic ramifications in WWII America by one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.
Featuring many previously unpublished photographs, this is the first book to focus exclusively on Parks’s photographs for The Standard Oil Company, illuminating an important chapter in his career prior to his landmark career as a staff photographer for Life magazine.
Co-published by The Gordon Parks Foundation and Carnegie Museum of Art.