Parks’s photographs of the church reveal this storefront sacred space as a symbolically dense environment that facilitated spiritual movement beyond one’s socioeconomic circumstances…. Watson’s participation in this religious community and her status as deaconess and possible church mother allowed her to subvert a life otherwise defined solely by labor and responsibility… The religious life of Ella Watson was a foundational point of entry to Black Washington for Parks and an important chapter in his development as an African American photographer.
‑ Melanee C. Harvey

American Gothic, Gordon Parks’s 1942 portrait of government worker Ella Watson, is among the most celebrated photographs of the twentieth century. When Parks met Watson, he was several months into a yearlong fellowship in Washington, D.C., that allowed him to work closely with the director of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Roy Stryker. American Gothic is in fact part of an extensive collaboration between the photographer and his subject— at once a record of one woman’s position within the racial, professional, and economic hierarchies that stratified the nation’s capital and Parks’s visual reckoning with the realities of living in racially segregated Washington, D.C. Through his work with Watson—a custodian in the government building where he worked—Parks composed an intimate portrait of Black life by focusing on everyday activities, from work routines to family meals and church services. The resulting photographs trace a remarkably intimate portrait of Watson as a multidimensional figure, cherished by her community and vitally important within the civic sphere.

In his extensive documentation of Watson’s daily life, Parks placed emphasis on her religious community. The role of the church in African American communities was keenly understood by Parks, and was a subject that he returned to throughout his career. Photographing local churches and Watson’s spiritual life was integral to Parks’s aim of showing the complexity and humanity of his subjects. This exhibition highlights these photographs through text written by Melanee C. Harvey, excerpted from an essay included in the book American Gothic: Gordon Parks and Ella Watson.

Melanee C. Harvey is the 2023 recipient of The Gordon Parks Foundation’s Genevieve Young Fellowship in Writing. All text excerpted from Harvey’s essay “’Think and Pray’: Verbrycke Spiritual Church and Ella Watson’s Religious Worldview” in American Gothic: Gordon Parks and Ella Watson, published by The Gordon Parks Foundation, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Steidl, 2024.

The exhibition American Gothic: Gordon Parks and Ella Watson, curated by Casey Riley, chair of Global Contemporary Art, was organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2024.

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Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, receiving anointment from Reverend Clara Smith during the "flower bowl demonstration," a service held once a year at the St. Martin's Spiritual Church. Reverend Vondell Gassaway is the pastor

American Gothic, Washington D.C. (Washington, D.C. Government charwoman)

Mrs. Ella Watson, a Government Charwoman