Gordon Parks, The Making of an Argument

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2013 by Steidl (here), the New Orleans Museum of Art (here), and the Gordon Parks Foundation (here). Hardcover, 136 pages, with 51 black and white photographs, 10 black and white contact sheets, and 6 LIFE magazine spreads (and cover). Includes essays by Russell Lord, Susan Taylor, Peter Kunhardt, and Irvin Mayfield, with 5 black and white photographs made by Lyric Cabral in 2007. The volume was published to coincide with an exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art; the show travels to the Fralin Museum of Art (University of Virginia, here) this fall. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: With all of the controversies and scandals in the past few years over photographic manipulation, we as contemporary viewers of imagery have become quite jaded consumers, approaching each new photograph we see with a sense of wary questioning, aware that how a photograph is being presented may meaningfully deviate from its origins. The parade of exposed fakes, Photoshop slimming, and doctored propaganda shots has forced us to become more sophisticated and critical in our looking, repeatedly asking ourselves to consider the implications of the underlying context, editing, and point of view of what we are being shown.

But back in the late 1940s, the flood of visual information we now take for granted was more of a trickle, and picture magazines like LIFE provided an important source of news for average (and less than image savvy) middle class Americans. In September of 1948, LIFE published Eugene Smith’s now famous Country Doctor photo essay, a landmark in the usage of imagery and text to create a combined narrative, and this format quickly became an important vehicle for storytelling at that time. So when a young Gordon Parks showed up at the magazine with the idea of making photographs of Harlem’s gangs, a picture essay was the natural end point for such a project. Harlem Gang Leader was published in November of that same year, and it was Parks’ first piece for LIFE and the first by a black photographer in the magazine.

This smartly conceived monograph tells the backstory of this single project, providing a meticulous scholarly analysis of the entire process, from Parks’ image making and the broader collection of photographs he ultimately took for the article, to the editing, cropping, sequencing, and final placement of the pictures and accompanying narrative text in the pages of the magazine. It includes the detailed spreads from LIFE, contact sheets of selections, variants, outtakes, and unused images, grease pencil marked negatives showing proposed cropping, larger prints from the body of work, and a comprehensive essay with historical details and anecdotes from the Gordon Parks Foundation written by Russell Lord (curator at NOMA). It basically provides the entire archive of the project, allowing us to step back into the nuanced process of turning a gathering of photographs into a story.

When we look at all of the pictures Parks made of Leonard “Red” Jackson and his Harlem gang (the Midtowners), what we see is a balanced, generally sympathetic portrait of the conflicts in Jackson’s life. Tough images of Jackson fighting with rival gangs, tussling with his own followers, and visiting an open casket of a young gang member are matched by tender images of Jackson holding the yarn as his mother knits, doing dishes in the kitchen, and putting on his best suit for a day as “boy mayor” of Harlem. Parks was a humanist, seeing both the hard exterior Jackson was putting forth for an unforgiving world as well as the softer side of neighborhood kids playing in an open fire hydrant. A slowly earned trust allowed Parks to get inside Jackson’s life, to see how violence, poverty, and discrimination influenced his options, choices, and actions, and to capture the sensible warmth in the personality found underneath his gang leader persona. Seen together, the set of photographs Parks made for the project is nuanced, reserved, and insightful.

While Parks’ pictures of Jackson documented a rounded, three-dimensional portrait of the boy and the challenges of his life, the resulting story in LIFE was much more pointed and two dimensional; as the title of the monograph implies, it was using the images and text to make an argument. In the magazine, “fear, frustration, and violence” were the centerpiece, with the fights, deaths, and disappointments brought to the forefront. Images were cropped down to focus on the action or to draw attention to the dead body in the casket; even the skyline of the city was lowered to create a sense of hunkered down shadowy grittiness. Of the roughly 20 images in the final story, only a handful can be considered positive in terms of their content or their depiction of Jackson.

That Parks’ photographs were turned over to a group of editors who fashioned the story as they saw fit, with little or no input from Parks, wasn’t unusual in those days. What was unique in this particular case was that both Parks and his subject were black and the editors white, bringing an element of race into process that had new implications; suddenly Park’s even handed images were being tilted into a more negative portrayal of Jackson and the larger community, evidence of the “Negro Problem”. According to the Lord’s essay, when Parks first saw the layout of the article, an image of Jackson with a smoking gun had been selected for the cover of the magazine; he felt it was so far from the trust he had developed with Jackson that he was forced to destroy the negative to prevent it from being used.

What’s important here is that this monograph unpacks the argument that eventually ran in the magazine and allows us to, at least in our heads, refashion the story with the raw materials at hand – we can play editor and consider how we might have made different choices or told a different version of the events. With just a little imagination, we can tell a surprisingly varied number of stories (from “bad” to “good”), and this is the power to be found in this book. While there are specific issues to be discussed around how LIFE chose to portray the gang activity in late 1940s Harlem and how race influenced the construction of that narrative, the exercise has broader application in the understanding how photographs are edited, controlled, and used to illustrate particular stories. In a certain way, this one picture essay can be used as a complex case study on editing (and as a result, will have broader relevance for the new generation of photobook self publishers rethinking the structure of narrative).

The story of Harlem Gang Leader also allows us peer into the early days of the career of Gordon Parks. The anecdotes and notes allow us to walk in Parks’ shoes as a black photographer trying to make it in the city, to understand the balancing act he was trying to pull off, and to consider the compromises and trade-offs he had to make to get this story run and to cement a more permanent working relationship with LIFE. Like Jackson, he too was struggling to establish himself, fighting prejudice along the way.

It’s not often that a tightly self-contained examination like this one can resonate on so many levels and catalyze so many nuanced conversations. Who knew that a single photo essay from the 1940s could be so engaging and relevant? Smart books like this one are a reminder that we need not always chase the new looking for insight, and that in-depth historical thinking can be rich, complex, and unexpectedly timely.

Collector’s POV: Gordon Parks is represented by Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York (here). Parks’ work has been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with recent prices ranging between $2000 and $23000.

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Read more about: Gordon Parks, New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), Steidl, The Gordon Parks Foundation

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