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With Gordon Parks as photographer and Ella Watson as subject, we might see an uneven relationship between a young artist and a tireless grandmother working to support her family. After all, "American Gothic," one of Parks' most iconic images, centers a weary Watson holding the implements of her work against the backdrop of an American flag.

But the two are linked beyond work.

Watson is one of the subjects of "American Gothic: Gordon Parks & Ella Watson," a collection of 60 black-and-white photographs that Parks shot in 1942. The show is divided into four sections: labor, care, faith and community. Watson is the focus of sections one and two, becomes less so in faith and is not at all visible in the community section.

In the first section, Parks photographs Watson in her nighttime custodial environment, framing it like a fashion shoot but with stark film noir-style lighting. Parks captures her sweeping an empty office and posing in front of empty desks with her mop standing up straight. The fashion framing of some of the pictures suggests a desire, shared by the photographer and the photographed, for a bigger, perhaps even glamorous life.

Then comes Parks' titular "American Gothic" portrait, a nod to Grant Wood's 1930 painting of two stiff-looking white Midwesterners, often read as a take on Midwestern simplicity.

But Parks' photographs, grouped in an exhibit curated by Casey Riley, the Minneapolis Institute of Art's global contemporary art chair, suggest other styles, including fashion photography, street photography and documentary work.

Parks' photo of Watson and Grant Wood's original pose similar questions. Is Parks poking fun at the failure of any sort of American dream for working women of color? Or is this photo intended to put her in a positive light, showing another side of Washington and the low-paid essential workers who run it?

From there, Parks' camera-as-eye moves to Watson's home, where she lived with her adopted daughter Lauretta and Lauretta's niece and two nephews. Lauretta is coming of age, and Parks captures that through gentle pictures of her sitting on a bed, wearing a nice suit and skirt, and as a reflection in a mirror.

He also documents Watson's church, St. Martin's Spiritual Church, where she was a deaconess and a church mother. It's as if Parks wanted to play with genres even as he was on the serious mission of humanizing Watson by showing her life at work, home and in the church.

For Watson, letting Parks into her life was a risk worth taking for the dignity that he brought out with his camera. Watson's world was stark and marked by privation. She would have been overlooked like a piece of furniture. But with attention from Parks, she and her dreams became seen.

Parks' images of Watson in church encapsulate her own escape. In the sanctuary, she's a leader, respected and honored. It's a world of service and exhalation, with her eyes on a world beyond this one.

The fourth room of the show has images of other people in Washington, all men, who are gearing up to have fun in hot, humid Washington nights.

Parks took these photos at a historical moment between the cultural ferment of the Harlem Renaissance and the freedom fight of the 1960s. We see in them an impulse to cast aside stereotypes about Black people and their work and spirituality. But Parks' work exemplified more than respectability politics.

Watson was Parks' liaison into a community where he was a visitor but knew the strife of those in it.

For Parks, who was developing his talent and would later become a celebrated filmmaker ("Shaft") and writer ("The Learning Tree," "A Choice of Weapons"), the four months he spent in 1942 embedded in Watson's life reveal a restless experimentation with style.

It was 99 years ago, in 1925, that Alain Locke published the anthology "The New Negro." Locke's charge was to marry artistic excellence with racial uplift. Nearly two decades later, Parks was photographing Watson in a summer when the nation was fighting World War II.

Yet the images are quiet in that regard. Perhaps the most startling photo is shot through a portal, a liminal space. Through the door frame, we see a boy on crutches. The perspective is from inside a building, looking out to the steps and the street beyond. It is elegant, simple, stylish. It's a glimpse into the ordinary, into simple joy and light no matter the hindrances one might face.

'American Gothic: Gordon Parks and Ella Watson'

When: Ends June 23.

Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Av. S.

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue., Wed., Fri.-Sun; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu.

Cost: Free.

Info: or 612-870-3000.