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 had known poverty and personal loss and had worked various jobs — busboy, big band jazz pianist, railcar waiter — that exposed him to people from all walks of life.
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.
Deeply moved by documentary photographs of Americans struggling during the Depression, Parks bought his first camera and taught himself to use it.
In May 1943, from his base of operations in Tunisia, General Dwight D. Eisenhower requested a special kind of grease to help enable an amphibious attack on Sicily. On May 31, the Standard Oil Development Company (SODC), the technical hub of Standard Oil of New Jersey, where experiments and testing were centralized, received instructions to create a scalable formula so that delivery of the grease could happen within one week. SODC succeeded and SONJ began producing the lubricant in its Baltimore plant on June 2. At first, the mixing paddles in many of the plant’s kettles broke as a result of the increased strain entailed by the special formula, but on June 6, some 45,000 pounds of “Eisenhower grease” were delivered to New York City for shipment to North Africa. The Army Ordnance Department then asked SONJ for an additional 260,000 pounds to be loaded on a convoy leaving on June 11.
SONJ enlisted the Pittsburgh Grease Works, also known as the Penola Grease Plant, which was equipped to handle the heavy grease; within 96 hours the order was ready. 4 With the Allied invasion of Sicily, which began on July 9, the Penola plant stepped up production. It continued preparing special lubricants needed by the military for the duration of the war. Eisenhower grease would subsequently be used for landing troops and supplies at Normandy in 1944 and in amphibious operations in the Pacific. 5 The only American-made lubricant that could work in these conditions and that was available in large quantities was the grease produced at the Penola plant in Pittsburgh, by then the largest grease plant in the world and a vibrant part of the city’s industrial fabric.
Western Pennsylvania is known for having some of the “sweetest” crude oil in the world. The oil is low in contaminants and has a high viscosity, making it ideal for refining into grease and other lubricants. 6 In 1893, a Pittsburgh industrialist named Grant McCargo founded the Pennsylvania Lubricating Company; the plant occupied nearly two city blocks, from 33rd to 35th Streets between Smallman Street and the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the city’s Strip District, and it produced a complete line of products using Pennsylvania Grade Crude. 7 The massive buildings were adjacent to the mills of the Carnegie Steel Company, and the proximity enabled the two companies to work together and keep the constant flow of trains and trucks running back and forth smoothly. Soon after the founding of the Pennsylvania Lubricating Co., it became a subsidiary of the Standard Oil Trust, which acquired a 60 percent stake. 8
Heavy industry was the economic driver for Pittsburgh. It attracted workers from around the country, particularly Blacks who had moved to escape the segregated South.
Heavy industry was the economic driver for Pittsburgh from the late 1800s until the mid 1950s. It attracted people looking for work from around the country, particularly African Americans who, during the Great Migration, moved from the South to the North to escape racism, segregation, and violence. Between 1910 and the end of World War II, the Black population of Pittsburgh more than tripled, growing from 25,623 to over 82,000. This gave the city the eighth largest African American population in the country, with much of the first wave of migrants arriving from the Shenandoah Valley and other parts of Virginia between the end of the 19th century and 1920. 9 During this same period, the number of Black iron and steel workers in Pittsburgh grew from 786 to 2,853, or more than 350 percent. 10
In 1920, at least half of all African American residents of Pittsburgh reported having White neighbors. Many Black people succeeded in blue-collar trades, working more dangerous jobs than their White colleagues, for less pay, and forming a substantial middle-class population. 11 They actively participated in the cultural life of the city, and through the philanthropy of industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, many had access to concert halls, libraries, museums, and schools. The first wave of African Americans who moved to Pittsburgh nurtured a renaissance in art, music, literature, and sports, similar to what was occurring at the same time in Chicago and New York.
African Americans who arrived later, in the 1920s, were primarily from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Alabama. 12 They too worked in industrial jobs, but were among the first to be let go during the Depression. The result was overcrowding in communities that grew more and more segregated. 13 These circumstances became more burdensome as migration from the South increased in the early 1940s. When industries ramped up for World War II, an even stronger racist backlash ensued. While Blacks did not face as much open hostility in Pittsburgh as they did in the South, racism persisted. Many shops discriminated against Black customers, and schools were segregated; very few African Americans were given the opportunity to enter local universities. Yet industrial plants hired African Americans at higher rates than ever before; these jobs were desirable because they paid well and were stable compared with other work available to laborers.
These were the conditions Parks witnessed in Pittsburgh. His visit coincided with the height of the Penola Grease Plant’s productivity — at the time nearly double that of its next largest competitor; ultimately the plant would produce nearly five million pounds of grease to support the war effort. 14 Nearly all lubricants used in the war were made in Standard Oil plants; this may have been due partly to connections between the company and the U.S. government. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Petroleum Administration for War on May 28, 1941, and appointed Harold L. Ickes, then Secretary of the Interior, to head the agency. Ickes in turn brought together influential members of the oil industry to form the Petroleum Industry War Council. His primary ally on the council was Ralph K. Davies, vice president of Standard Oil of California, whom Ickes later appointed deputy petroleum coordinator. 15
The relationship between the government and Standard Oil became messy when, in March 1942, the company was accused of antitrust violations stemming from a long-term relationship with the German petrochemical manufacturer I.G. Farben. Congressional hearings were held, and questions were raised about SONJ’s ability to manufacture products needed for the war. 16 Although the company was exonerated, the damage to its reputation had been done. A 1942 Roper poll found that most respondents had hostile feelings toward Standard Oil, in part because they thought it was a corrupt organization that still monopolized the petroleum business. 17
Seeking to improve its image, Standard Oil hired Earl Newsom & Co., a leading Madison Avenue public relations firm, and embarked on a major publicity campaign. In October 1943, an employee at Newsom recommended that the company hire Roy Stryker, the famed director of the Farm Security Administration photography program, to create the “largest photographic documentation project ever undertaken in America by anyone other than the federal government.” 18 Stryker hired some of his photographers from the FSA and the Office of War Information, including Gordon Parks, and dispatched them to document the people and places that made up SONJ’s culture. Ultimately Stryker worked for SONJ from 1943 to 1950, and Parks joined him from 1944 to 1948. The SONJ picture file would grow to number more than 65,000 photographs. 19
Parks photographed the physical plant, research laboratory, and factory floor, in order to fully explain the process of grease making.
In 1944, shortly after starting the project, and then again in 1946, Stryker sent Parks to the Penola Grease Plant. He was confident that Parks would spend time getting to know the people and the place; this aligned well with the company’s desire to highlight the faces of the company. The pictures Parks made show nearly all aspects of the establishment and its activity. He photographed the physical plant, the research laboratory, the factory floor, and packaging and transportation activities, in order to fully explain the process of grease making, testing, and shipping. Parks understood that Stryker needed overall views of the plant as well as images of the individuals working inside it. Finding the balance between celebrating America’s industrial might and communicating the stories of those doing the labor was Parks’s strength. He had honed his skills while with Stryker at the FSA and OWI, and now he was putting them to work for Standard Oil of New Jersey.
Making grease was not an easy job. According to Parks, the hottest, dirtiest, most dangerous jobs were held by Black workers.
Making grease was not an easy job; workers did it to earn a living and support the war effort. The conditions were dangerous, dirty, and hot. Even Parks, in a letter to Stryker, underscored the difficulty of the labor: “It was nasty. In every building and on every floor grease was underfoot. At the end of each day of work an hour or more was spent cleaning with a Carbro tech solution provided by the plant.” 20 If Parks’s equipment required cleaning with chemical solvent after a day in the plant, one can only imagine what must have accumulated on the clothing and skin of the workers who spent every day in the same conditions. According to Parks, the hottest, dirtiest, most dangerous jobs were held by Black workers. “Most of the personnel within the manufacturing units were Negroes and it was their jobs that presented the most colorful scenes. An attempt was made to minimize my coverage of their activities so that all the nationalities might be integrated into the story.” 21 The “manufacturing units” operated kettles of boiling hot grease that was pumped into barrels and pans where White supervisors would then monitor and test it. Parks recognized the differences in job hierarchy and the inequality that was thereby reinforced. He also observed the camaraderie and friendship among workers of all backgrounds, who played checkers together on their lunch break. Ever the consummate professional, Parks recorded the challenges of working at the grease plant as well as the rewards it could bring. 22
Parks had considerable control over the appearance of his photographs and how they were captioned, but he did not leave a record of the exact order in which they were made. 23 His exterior views of the plant resemble many other photographs of Pittsburgh made in the mid 1940s. Nearly all industry, the Penola Grease Plant included, was concentrated along the edges of the city’s three rivers in order to facilitate access and transportation. Parks shows the plant from above, enveloped in smog, with smokestacks and silos visible in all directions and rail lines crisscrossing the landscape. In another photograph, of the plant entrance, two men stand behind a glass-paneled door stenciled with the words “Standard Oil Company of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Works.” Behind them hangs a sign: “NO ADMITTANCE, THIS MEANS YOU.” Albeit intended sarcastically, it was still an ominous message for an outsider. Parks underscores distinctions between insiders and outsiders by frequently using windows and doors as framing devices in his pictures. Sometimes this invites close observation and appreciation of an individual’s work and other times it imparts a sense of voyeurism or suggests that he was not welcomed by everyone in the factory. He encountered a range of receptions at the plant, yet he always approached his subjects with respect for their work and their humanity, to provide a nuanced look at the inner operations of this industry.
Eventually, Parks began photographing the process of making grease. Several different types of grease — thin liquid for cars, thick liquid for munitions, and solid cakes for bearings and heavy wear points on railroad cars and tanks — were made in this plant, and Parks documented them all. Workers are shown weighing ingredients and adding them to large kettles, which were then heated with giant gas jets to cook the grease. The kettles stood nearly three stories tall, and workers are pictured taking elevators to various levels of the factory. A multitude of people were needed to coordinate the complex manufacturing process.
Unpeopled, almost abstract views of plant machinery feature the paddles that mixed the grease inside the kettles, as well as the valves used to extract it into barrels or pans. There are also many pictures of the grease itself — containers full of oozing, sticky, slimy, stomach-turning substances — which stress the materiality of diverse lubricants. As Stryker required of his photographers, Parks had familiarized himself with the process of making grease and was sure to document all the steps. 24 He also took pictures of workers testing the grease. During manufacturing, managers regularly checked the temperature and thickness of the lubricants. In the laboratory, scientists used penetrometers, titration tubes, and other devices to determine the water content and viscosity of different greases. Testing was essential, because it ensured consistent high-quality products that the military needed. The workers were careful that the grease worked as intended.
Parks photographed plant manager Charles B. Karns alone in his office and meeting with his head grease maker, plant foreman, and chief engineer. They wear their business attire in a meeting around Karns’s desk, presumably to discuss the output of the plant and ways to improve it. Karns was not just a businessman in a suit; he held a 1938 patent for the manufacture of an oil that could “withstand high bearing pressures.” 25 With his camera, Parks represented the stark contrast between the dark wood offices of the manager and the dirty, cramped quarters in which the grease makers worked — a contrast that was likely the same in most industrial settings at the time.
Far from an impassive observer, Parks wanted his photographs to convey meaning and effect change in the world.
Far from an impassive observer, Parks wanted his photographs to convey meaning and effect change in the world. While some of the pictures he made in the grease plant were candid or unposed, most were highly orchestrated. In Flash Photography, a book he published shortly after his 1946 trip to Pittsburgh, Parks wrote, “As a visual reporter, the cameraman’s work reaches a vast impressionable audience. It is his obligation to present an accurate message to the audience. If the photographer would have his audience see as he sees, he must study his world, its people and the light that makes them both visible. He must then use the camera and his flash in such a manner that they substantiate the character of the report he attempts to make.” 26 In the context of this book, Parks is speaking about the use of flash in making photographs, but his reasoning can be applied to nearly all his work. One of the ways Parks controlled his message was through the use of artificial lighting. From the intricate diagrams in Flash Photography, we know he often used more than one source of light to create a picture. For his photograph of a worker cleaning an oil drum — perhaps his most iconic image from the grease plant series — Parks used four different flashes to get the picture he wanted. With multiple lights set up around the man’s workspace, Parks was able to “emphasize texture in the apron … [fill] in the shadows … and lend third-dimensional quality.” 27 The result is a photograph that is simultaneously a reliable record of grease production and a celebration of the bravery and hard work of the individual.
Perhaps the most interesting photographs Parks made in Pittsburgh are his portraits. In Flash Photography he coined a phrase to describe these pictures: “journalistic portraiture.” For Parks, these portraits were closer to documentary photographs than pictures made in a studio; as he said, “by defining the individual in relation to his everyday life, the portrait takes a new and greater meaning.” 28 These were not candid pictures made without the permission or awareness of the subject; yet there is something natural about them, which indicates that Parks connected closely with the men and depicted them in unguarded moments.
Parks made portraits of workers in nearly every department of the factory, from carpenters and electricians working in the physical plant to grease-makers on the factory floor; from scientists studying in labs to executives in their offices; and from packers painting labels on barrels of grease to truck drivers taking them to the docks for transport to the front lines. Sometimes the subjects look directly into his camera and smile. Parks made multiple exposures of some scenes, as in the photograph of two men seated beneath a ring of gas jets cooking grease. 29 This picture takes on added meaning when we discover how much time and effort he put into first exposing the bright gas jets and then layering the portrait on top to reveal the men’s expressions — a level of care and skill from the photographer that underscore a sincere commitment to his subjects and his art.
‘I want my camera to be an outstanding voice for all peoples with a cause,’ said Parks.
Evidence of Parks’s second visit to Pittsburgh appeared in the pages of The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most widely circulated and longest-running newspapers serving the African American community in the United States. On September 21, 1946, the paper ran a story on Parks, stating that he was in town to visit friends and family — though we also know he revisited the grease plant for Standard Oil. 30 The story offered an observation from him: “I want my camera to be an outstanding voice for all peoples with a cause. I want it to speak significantly, no matter for whom it speaks, as long as it speaks for the right cause.” 31 Parks may have been commenting in universal terms about his own work, but he was also emphasizing the importance of the workers he photographed at the grease plant as well as his choice to allude to the racism and discrimination they faced on the job.
The public relations team at Standard Oil of New Jersey — including Stryker and Parks — recognized that the best way to tell this story of industrial lubricants was to humanize it. Parks’s comprehensive portrait of these working men and their participation in the Allied cause was intended to sway consumers who may have been suspicious of an avaricious corporation to identify with its employees and admire the company. Having lived a life forged by discrimination similar to that experienced by Black workers in the factory, Parks understood how to narrate their story in humanistic terms. He would continue this approach in his next position, as the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine, and for many years to come.