"At first, I asked her about her life, what it was like, and so disastrous that I felt that I must photograph this woman in a way that would make me feel or make the public feel about what Washington D.C., was in 1942. So I put her before the American flag with a broom in one hand and a mop in another. And I said, "American Gothic"—that's how I felt at the moment. I didn't care about what anybody else felt. That's what I felt about America and Ella Watson's position inside America."

–Gordon Parks, 1998.

In the summer of 1942, during a yearlong fellowship in Washington, D.C., Gordon Parks photographed government worker Ella Watson across the varied landscape of her daily life. The resulting picture story presents Watson—a custodian, the head of a household, a deaconess at her church—as a vital figure within the civic sphere. At the same time, this intimate series reveals Parks’s experiences in coming to terms with the segregated city he once embraced as “the seat of democracy.”

This exhibition brings together nearly sixty photographs from their partnership and draws its title from one of the most celebrated photographs of the 20th century—an iconic portrait of Watson that Parks later titled “American Gothic.” Most importantly, it proposes new grounds for understanding Parks as an artist and activist, highlighting a unique professional collaboration between two Black federal employees at a crucial juncture in United States history.

Organized by Mia and The Gordon Parks Foundation.
Curated by Casey Riley, Chair, Global Contemporary Art and Curator of Photography & New Media.

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Gordon Parks, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942