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Compared to the bold, larger-than-life works in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s adjoining 30 Americans exhibit of African-American artists, this small exhibition of photographs by Gordon Parks (1912–2006) is positively old-school. But that doesn’t make Parks’ works any less gut-wrenching. Parks is best known for his documentary work for Life magazine, where he became the first black staff photographer. Like other photographers working in the mid-20th century, Parks devoted extensive efforts to documenting the turbulence of the civil rights era, from the finely dressed black mother and daughter standing below a “Colored Entrance” sign in Birmingham in 1956 to an intense Malcolm X in mid-oration. But two series in the exhibit are especially striking. One features Red Jackson, a teenaged Harlem gang leader in 1948, whose portrayal—-made possible after Parks somehow convinced Jackson to let him be a fly on the wall within his violent life—-is as visceral and nuanced as anything in The Wire, only half a century earlier. The other series of note features Ella Watson, the Washington, D.C., custodian Parks photographed holding a mop and a broom in front of an oversized American flag. The image (above) has become iconic, and indeed is Parks’ best-known image. But the real revelation is an image Parks made behind the scenes (below), of a weary Watson caring for her grandchildren in what looks like an impossibly cramped apartment.

Through Jan. 16, 2012, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St NW, Washington, D.C. (202) 639-1700. Wed, Fri, Sat, Sun 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thu 10 a.m.–9 p.m.