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Gordon Parks

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Neil Leifer’s 1965 photograph of Muhammad Ali hovering over a knocked-out Sonny Liston may be the most famous sports shot of all time, but you will not find it at “The Sports Show,” a photography and new-media exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Nor will you find a single picture of the most famous athlete of the past 15 years, Tiger Woods, or of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team celebrating its miracle win, or of American soccer player Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt after clinching the 1999 World Cup. Can you really mount a worthwhile retrospective of sports photography without these iconic athletes and moments? Turns out you can. In fact, “The Sports Show” (on view through May 13) is better off for it.

When I checked out the exhibit on opening day, I expected a greatest-hits compendium of sports images. But curator David Little took a more surprising approach, choosing photographs that offer more social commentary than celebration. For example, the circa-1899 portrait of female high school students playing basketball in dresses sends the message that women, too, could participate in emerging sports. (The picture was taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston, whom LIFE magazine once called “the closest thing to an official court photographer the United States has ever had.”) More than a century later, that message continues to resonate: Title IX has delivered athletic opportunities to millions of girls, but female athletes still fight for the same opportunities and recognition that boys get.

The exhibit casts a skeptical eye on the emotional energy we expend on sports. In 1970 photographer Tod Papageorge toured the country capturing fans at big events like the Iron Bowl (the Alabama-vs.-Auburn college-football rivalry) and opening day at Yankee Stadium. Some people in the crowd are goofing off, but many others appear pensive. The photographs invite the viewer to wonder what the spectators are thinking and feeling. Is their favorite team losing? Or are real-life stresses still on their minds? Papageorge bitingly called this project—a portion of which is on display in Minneapolis—American Sports, 1970, or How We Spent the War in Vietnam.

Read More: “Big Shots: The impact of sports on society, seen through the camera’s eye.”

The Sports Show is on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts now through May 13.

MORE: Check out’s new sports blog: Keeping Score.

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“I had bought what was to become my weapon against poverty and racism,” Gordon Parks famously recalled of his first camera purchase at a pawnshop for $7.50. And where the LIFE staff photographer and film director first applied that weapon, on a large scale, was at the Farm Services Administration (FSA), which had been consolidated into Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942. Parks had a one-year photography internship at FSA-OWI that year, and his time with the federal government program—which hired photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to document the agency’s work— is the subject of a new book by the Library of Congress, Fields of Vision: The Photographs of Gordon Parks. “Very few people know he worked for the FSA-OWI,” says W. Ralph Eubanks, director of publishing at the Library of Congress. “Even I had always thought Parks was biding his time there, until he could branch off and do what do what he wanted to do. But he was actually doing some very serious work.”

While Parks was at the FSA-OWI in Washington, he suffered from the effects of segregation. In one instance, the photographer was kicked out of a movie theater, told to eat in the back of a restaurant and dismissed by a department store clerk all in one day. Roy Stryker, head of the FSA’s photography program, counseled Parks to talk to other people who suffered from those actions, as opposed to trying to depict bigotry in his work. That result was one of his more recognizable images from the time, American Gothic. “What he was up against personally shows up in those photographs. Parks made a connection with African Americans he met in DC. He went into people’s homes, into their churches,” says Eubanks. “Stryker was encouraging him to get into the mind of his subjects and capture it. I don’t think any of the white photographers would have been allowed that kind openness.”

The Parks book, which features an introduction by Charles Johnson, is the ninth in a series the Library of Congress has rolled out, pulling from the 171,000 FSA-OWI negatives in its archive. With a focus on photographers not immediately associated with the department, like Parks, Marion Post Wolcott and Jack Delano, the Fields of Vision series explores how the artists’ time at the FSA-OWI formed the roots of later work. “We wanted to find images that you haven’t seen,” explains Eubanks. “We also wanted to choose photographs that documented the human condition, rather than just the Great Depression.”

Of all the books in the series, Eubanks says it’s the Parks tome that has surprised him most. “He really did put himself into the work at the FSA-OWI completely. People should know more than just American Gothic.” In looking past that iconic image, Eubanks says, “I got a better sense of a great photographer as a young man.”

The FSA-OWI archives—including over 1,600 images by Parks—can be viewed hereThe books in the Library of Congress series, including Fields of Vision: The Photographs of Gordon Parks, are available online.

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Gordon Parks worked for the Farm Security Administration before he gained fame. Now, the Library of Congress is making 50 of those pictures available in a little gem of a book.

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