Gordon Parks, The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2020 by Steidl (here) and The Gordon Parks Foundation (here). Hardcover, 9.75×11.5 inches, 168 pages, with 70 color illustrations. Includes essays by Bryan Stevenson, Nicole R. Fleetwood, and Sarah Hermanson Meister, and foreword by Glenn Lowry and Peter Kunhardt Jr.. Edited by Sarah Hermanson Meister. Designed by Duncan Whyte. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Few publications in recent memory have been as fortuitously timed as Gordon Parks’ The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957. Published in June, its release came amid a generational boiling point. Critical sentiments about police, crime, the justice system, class, and racial disparity had always simmered in certain corners of America. Following George Floyd’s murder, they’ve risen to the fore of public discourse. Societal fault lines are still shifting as I write this, with power structures and funding decisions in flux, although the exact fallout remains to be seen. A photobook providing some historic context comes at a welcome moment. 

As often happens in photography, the synchronicity was happenstance. When the wheels of publication first began turning last year, there was no civil unrest. Steidl simply aimed to publish in conjunction with an upcoming re-hanging of the permanent collection at MoMA. The museum acquired 56 Parks prints from the series this past February, and had decided to display them as part of the re-installation of the collection galleries. While the plan for the Parks install has been set, the coronavirus has since curtailed physical visits. MoMA has been closed since March and the prints from The Atmosphere Of Crime, 1957 will now go on display once the museum re-opens. So the Steidl book is the best place to see these photographs, at least for now.

Lurking in the shadows of its publication—and our current cultural paroxysm—is a national leader whose nostalgic fantasies may inform a closer reading of Parks. His societal prescription LAW AND ORDER may be sophomoric, especially when hammered like a billy club repeatedly into the Twitterverse. But if assigned a date, MAGA’s original reference point might be very close to 1957. In the President’s imagination, this was the apotheosis of the post-war boom period. America was quickly ascending as an imperial superpower, Blacks and women still knew their place, and there were few fussy regulations restricting his father’s redlining or backroom largesse. America was great in 1957, at least in the juvenile worldview of 11-year old Donald Trump, a fairy tale outlook which has proven disconcertingly resilient. 

However, the 1957 experienced by Gordon Parks, and by many Americans like him, was something completely different. The youngest of 15 kids raised in segregated Kansas, Parks had overcome numerous obstacles on the way to becoming a respected photojournalist. By 1957, he was 45 and entering his prime as a photographer, his status rapidly cementing as one of Life Magazine’s top staff shooters. After years shooting in black and white, he’d begun exploring color of late, and he had applied it to a 1956 assignment exploring segregation in America, which was well received. When the magazine’s next major assignment came along—documenting the state of crime in America—Parks was the obvious choice.

Parks spent six weeks on the road that summer with reporter Henry Suydam, visiting New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. As Parks described it later, it was “a journey through hell…Violent death showed up from dawn to dusk.” If he had misgivings, he managed to work past them. He shot prolifically, and a selection of his photographs ran in the September 9, 1957 issue of Life Magazine, alongside a companion essay by Robert Wallace. Parks’ pictures were given 8 full pages, a lavish spread by today’s standards. Paired with the Wallace piece and various advertisements, the combination covered 24 pages of Life. This entire section is reproduced facsimile-style in the new book, and it is a treasure.

Until now, this had been the only public airing of these photographs. But of course Parks had shot countless more. The complete record of the assignment, and of all Parks’ works, have been held since his death by the Gordon Parks Foundation, an organization based in Pleasantville, NY, which has worked double-time to air out the entire archive, piece by tantalizing piece. By my unscientific count, The Atmosphere Of Crime, 1957 is the 17th book published through the foundation’s efforts since Parks died in 2006. His oeuvre is fantastic, and Parks’ star ascends a bit further with each book. 

The supposition of Life in 1957 was that a crime wave was sweeping the country. Never mind that the hypothesis was untested. It still formed the backdrop for the assignment and for the subsequent reporting from Wallace, Suydam, and Parks. Of the trio, Wallace seemed the most amenable to the crime-wave idea. His piece begins with a breathless warning about “a dreadful shift” in the nature of crime, “the decline in morality”, and acts “savage and wanton beyond belief.” All of these come in the opening paragraphs, forming a foreboding splash page geared to startle readers, and possibly sell some magazines in the process. In the essay’s latter half, Wallace’s allows his doubts to filter through. It seems that after talking with experts and sorting through poorly-kept statistics, the idea of a crime wave is rather ambiguous, unsupported by any research. He wonders out loud if the average citizen gets “a fair shake” or “a square deal”. Perhaps by design, by the time Wallace’s assumptions begin to waffle, it is several pages in, tucked in thin columns amidst the back classifieds, and unlikely to garner much attention. 

Parks required less handwringing to reach the same conclusion. The idea of a crime wave was dubious to him from square one. As Bryan Stevenson writes in the foreword, “Where Life’s editors saw menace and threat, Parks saw suffering, struggle, despair, and fear.” Nevertheless Parks felt Life’s mandate to follow the assignment, and to make his photos palatable for its largely white, middle-class readership. This would be a challenge for any photographer, but especially for Parks who felt personally the sting of a two-tiered society. 

He managed to thread the needle by crafting a series which hinted at an illicit underworld, yet withheld judgement. His photographs are quiet and subdued, conveying the titular atmosphere of crime without sensationalism. Pictures of gritty parked cars framed in a narrow pane, dark silhouettes in a hallway, and men conversing quietly behind bars hinted at clandestine vice. But the nuts and bolts of actual felonies were not depicted. What’s more, alleged criminals themselves escape the identifying gaze of Parks. He often showed these subjects from rear angles, or with faces obscured, or beyond his depth of field (foreshadowing current privacy concerns). This facet is especially notable when contrasted with his record of authority figures. Police, detectives, and jailkeeps are generally recognizable in his photos. This notably includes the most violent photograph in the book, two undercover cops kicking through a door, guns drawn. The picture explodes with menace, turning preconceptions of criminal justice on their head. Or at least Parks may have hoped. 

The reticent nature of Parks depictions is noteworthy when compared to other mid-century crime photographers. For ambulance chasers like Weegee, Mell Kilpatrick, and Enrique Metinides, the old mantra held true, If it bleeds it leads. Crime and violence were splattered across their frames as graphically as possible. Later photographers like Danny Lyon and Larry Clark took a less sensational tack, but made no effort to obscure or depersonalize. Nor did Dorothea Lange, shooting Japanese “criminals” in WWII detention camps. On the contrary, these photographers generally viewed recognizance as a humanizing feature. For Parks though, his leeriness of authority more honed than white shooters, the double-sided sword of identification was a more tenuous prospect.

Parks’ ambivalence about a crime wave extended to conceptions of legality itself. For a black man in segregated America, the hypocrisy of criminal justice required no great mental leap. After all it had been perfectly legal in 1923 for three white boys to toss Parks into a pool to drown, just as slavery, lynching, bigamy, rape, poll taxes, and animal cruelty were once enacted with impunity. Conversely, many practices deemed criminal in 1957—interracial marriage, abortion, marijuana, lotteries, homosexuality, e.g.— became legal in later years. With some fundamental exceptions, crime has few absolutes and plenty of grey areas, a fact of which Parks was keenly aware. 

Although he couldn’t know the particulars of later jurisprudence, it is interesting to view 1957 through a contemporary filter. A photograph by Parks of two red pills which may have seemed incriminating to Life‘s readers in 1957, seems less so now that most Americans ingest pharmaceuticals regularly. A photograph of two joints lying near brass knuckles, an omen of potential barbarian invasion in 1957, seems too benign now to raise hackles. Perhaps most striking is the cover photograph which depicts a jailed hand lingering with a cigarette. Ironically this might have seemed the most harmless shot in the series in 1957. But alas, smoking indoors is now universally proscribed. Given the mutability of drug laws, one wonders if Parks’ photo triad showing heroin prepped and shot into a forearm will be viewed differently in a few decades.

Criminal justice questions aside, this is a book which can be enjoyed simply for its photographic merits. As a visual technician, Parks was superb. Working mostly at night and in shifting chaotic scenes, he possessed a knack for clarity built on years of photojournalistic practice. Pictures in the book showing cops through a windshield, a prisoner in his cell, and two limps hands in a simple cuff are masterpieces of understated elegance. Parks flexed his powers not by dominating his frames but through quiet bouyancy, undergirded with a sublime sense of color. His tonality was defined by the golden hues of Kodachrome. But for Parks this was merely a starting point. His compositions stripped the gamut even further, arriving at a minimalist palette with the brooding intensity of monochrome. The book’s opening plate, for example, shows a policeman silhouetted against a cartoon-blue sky and distant show lights. Using just a handful of colors, Parks’ cop is a masterpiece of visual economy. Coming shortly after the burnt orange endpapers, this initial series photo is pitch perfect.

From this point the sequence of pictures roughly traces a descent into criminality, from city sidewalks to dens of iniquity, from police precincts to jail cells, a prison and a morgue, capped with finality by a moody seascape of inescapable Alcatraz. Two essays follow, by Nicole R. Fleetwood and Sarah Hermanson Meister, each examining criminal justice through a reformist POV. Primed by these, and also by Bryan Stevenson’s introductory piece, most readers will gain some skepticism toward authority by the time they reach the original Life magazine reproductions which close out the book.

As presented in the book, the Life spreads are secondary. But in some ways, this is the most interesting and incisive section, and Steidl was wise to include it. The pages provide a direct channel back to 1957, with all the critical dust that a time machine naturally kicks up. Here we find the original essay and photos by Wallace and Parks, displayed with their initial chronology and cropping. Comparisons to the latest curation present themselves, inevitably. But perhaps most interesting are the advertisements surrounding the articles. To read about assault and murder is jarring enough on its own. Set against a full page Met Life ad promising “peace of mind” in the form of paid family annuities, the juxtaposition is glaring. An ad for Edsel boasts of “the boundless faith in the strength of the American economy.” Displays for Band-aids, toothpaste, underwear, and shampoo bypass the underclass entirely as they pitch the American dream to an aspirational demographic. Without exception, every person shown is white, middle-aged, and conservatively dressed. This was Life’s primary audience, at least as its editors imagined it.

Parks’ crime photos may have been conceived originally for a periodical, a relatively low-brow form, even considered disposable in some quarters. But they’ve come a long way since, all the way into MoMA’s collection. The book closes with a selection of museum touchstones. A checklist of all 56 photographs acquired by MoMA sits across the spread from a reprise of the raiding detectives photo. This was an early gift from Parks to the museum, an unusual silver gelatin print made from a color slide. Perhaps the choice of image was a subtle hint from Parks to the entrenched powers, a critical view of authority. Open the door or we’ll do it for you! It’s hard to know in hindsight. In any case its visual power has gained since, and the photograph provides a thought-provoking coda to an exceptional monograph. 

Collector’s POV: The gallery representation relationships for Gordon Parks are somewhat tricky to unravel. Some galleries clearly represent the Parks estate, while others are putting on shows of his work that may or may not represent a fuller relationship. Some of the galleries where Parks’ work can be found include Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York (here), Jack Shainman Gallery in New York (here), Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago (here), Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta (here), Weinstein Hammons Gallery in Minneapolis (here), and Alison Jacques Gallery in London (here). His prints have been only intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with recent prices ranging between $2000 and $24000.

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