Gordon Parks' provocative portraits 

click to enlarge Photographs by Gordon Parks — Life magazine's first black photographer — are on view in The City, including "American Gothic," above. - COURTESY PHOTO
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  • Photographs by Gordon Parks — Life magazine's first black photographer — are on view in The City, including "American Gothic," above.

Artist Gordon Parks was a Renaissance man — a photographer, writer, filmmaker and composer. From Paris fashion shows to the streets of Harlem, his photographs have a timeless quality about them — unflinchingly honest and tenderly done.

Parks, who died in 2006, would have been 100 this year. In honor of his work, "Gordon Parks: Photographs at His Centennial" is on display at the Museum of the African Diaspora through Sept. 29.

Parks was Life magazine's first black journalist, and the eight photographs on display were taken during his 24-year career there. As a photojournalist he documented the injustice he witnessed at a time when the social and political landscape was changing rapidly.

"I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty," Parks once said. "I could have just as easily picked up a knife or gun, as many of my childhood friends did ... but I chose not to go that way. I felt I could somehow subdue these evils by doing something beautiful that people recognize me by, and thus make a whole different life for myself."

Among the works on display is "American Gothic," a photograph taken by Parks in 1942. Ella Watson, a cleaning woman at the Farm Security Administration, stands solemnly in front of the American flag holding a broom in one hand and a mop in the other. It's a riveting, unsettling portrait that speaks volumes about racial inequality.

There's also a 1966 portrait of a young Muhammad Ali, fresh out of the boxing ring and dripping with sweat; a self-portrait of Parks posing with his camera; and a photograph of the Fontenelle family at the local welfare office in Harlem.

The photograph of Bessie Fontenelle and her children was part of "A Harlem Family," a photo essay Parks produced in 1968. The haunting images put a face on urban poverty for Life readers, who contributed enough money so that the family was able to move. Tragically, Bessie's husband, Norman, accidentally set their new house on fire shortly after they moved in, killing himself and one of their sons.

The exhibition includes the excellent 90-minute film, "Half-Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks." It's a treat to hear Parks talk about his work and the challenges he faced. The documentary highlights his many contributions, including a film career that gave the world "Shaft."

Gordon Parks: Photographs at His Centennial

Where: Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St., S.F.

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 29.

Tickets: $5 to $10

Contact: (415) 358-7200; www.moadsf.org

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Cathy Bowman

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