Photograph by Gordon Parks, The LIFE Images Collection/Getty
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Recent protests in St. Paul evoke the work of Gordon Parks, an influential 20th-century interpreter of African American life and culture.

Why does this legendary Black photographer's work continue to resonate today?

Gordon Parks became one of the 20th century's most influential interpreters of African-American life and culture. Here, a 1948 self-portrait.


Sometimes one of the most interesting things about a photograph is what's just outside the frame. That's the case with the portrait of Deveonte Joseph that Nathan Aguirre made on a street corner in St. Paul, Minnesota a month ago during the protests after the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer.

Across the street from where Joseph stood, barely outside of the camera's view, is a building that connects him to another young black man who lived in St. Paul nearly a century ago. The building is Gordon Parks High School. Its namesake was a man who, as a photojournalist, became one of the mid-20th century's most influential interpreters of African American life and culture. The connection between Joseph and the school reveals much about the enduring nature of racial oppression in the United States and, at the same time, allows us to think about how that oppression and resistance to it have been represented in photography.

Joseph's portrait, which I wrote about soon after Aguirre made it, captured the public's imagination. It quickly went viral on social media and attracted the attention of mainstream news outlets such as CNN. It's easy to see why. In the photograph, Joseph was incongruously dressed in an academic cap and gown, stylishly torn blue jeans, and basketball shoes, as if he were ready for both a graduation ceremony and the party afterward. Although he was isolated in the center of the frame, enough...

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