In 1957, Gordon Parks accepted an assignment from Life magazine, where he had been a staff photographer for a decade — the first African American to hold such a position — to explore crime in America. An interesting gig. How to tackle it?
Some of his pictures dwelled on the aftermath of violence. One showed a homicide victim splayed on the ground. Another was of an elderly White nurse dressing the wounds of a bloodied Black victim.
Other photographs were at once humdrum and macabre. One indelible image was of a short, stocky worker in a morgue, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, bending down to retrieve a shooting victim covered in a white cloth.
Some of the photographs are the more disturbing for the absence of bodies. Parks zoomed in, for instance, on a pre-execution order on a prison clipboard. And in the next shot, we see a uniformed guard, through the threshold of a half-closed door, sitting by an empty electric chair, arranging the leather straps.
At the warden’s invitation, which he regretted accepting, Parks witnessed a man being executed in that chair. He also took photos inside San Quentin prison and showed Alacatraz across the water at night.
None of these images is crude or cliched. A few, it’s true, are brutally direct, in the spirit of Robert Lowell (“Yet why not say what happened?”) or Walker Evans (“If the thing is there, why there it is.”). But others are oddly — and arrestingly — tentative. They’re optically blurred, obscured by visual impediments, as if filtered through the artist’s melancholy, his pity, his black-of-night bewilderment. Looking at them, you feel that something others might rush to — judgment, sentencing, finality — has been deliberately withheld.
A selection of these photographs appeared alongside text by staff writer Robert Wallace as an eight-page photo essay in a 1957 issue of Life. At the time, Life was one of the most popular and influential publications in the nation. It was aimed at a mass market, which meant that its readers were middle class and mostly White, as the tenor of the magazine’s advertising attests.
So even though Parks, who once described himself as “an objective reporter with a subjective heart,” brought to bear his deeply artistic and compassionate sensibility on the subject of American crime, its presentation in the magazine was subtly skewed to fit a preexisting, politically loaded narrative about crime. Where Parks’s camera captured, for instance, his subjects’ vulnerability, the captions tendentiously described “known criminals.” Other images were described in terms of impending violence, to stoke sensation.
Thanks to the Gordon Parks Foundation, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the great German photography publisher Steidl, we can now see Parks’s photo-essay in expanded form, shorn of Life magazine’s prejudicial framing, in a new book, “Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957.” Images from the series also can be seen as part of an online presentation of Parks’s work on the MoMA website.
The presence of the word “atmosphere” in the title is apt. It captures both the cumulative impact of the imagery and the complexity of crime’s causes and effects. Park’s use of blur, his unexpected vantage points and his embrace of pooling darkness all elevate his feeling for complication and suffering over the usual simplistic story lines that crowd to the subject of crime.
Where did Parks’s pity, his feeling for injustice, come from?
Born in 1912, the youngest of 15 children, Parks grew up in Kansas, where he suffered, he said, “all the indignities of being a Negro in Kansas in those early days, and I had lots of problems.” Three of his friends died before they were 20.
It was an era of racial terror. Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (and author of “Just Mercy”), writes in the lead essay of the Parks book that in 1920, when Parks was just 7 and living in racially segregated Fort Scott, a man named Albert Evans — described in the local press as a “Negro tramp” — was falsely accused of assaulting a White girl (the White man who accused him later admitted to the crime). Just 25 miles from Parks’s home, Evans was imprisoned, pulled out of the jail window, and tortured and lynched by a mob of more than 1,000 White people.
Four years later, Stevenson writes, Parks was thrown into a river by three White boys who knew he couldn’t swim. He would go on to become one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers, as well as a groundbreaking filmmaker, writer, choreographer and composer. But first he had to learn how to defeat what he called “the elaborate conspiracy of evil that once beckoned me towards such a death,” meaning the state execution he had witnessed in 1957. The statement attests to Parks’s instinctive identification with his subjects. He didn’t witness that execution as a pitying observer. He looked at it with horror, imagining that the executed man could have been him.
By then, Parks had many extraordinary photo-essays under his belt, including “Segregation Story,” which focused on race and poverty in the South, and his famous photo-essay on Leonard “Red” Jackson, who was presented by Life magazine as a “notorious Harlem gangster.”
Parks refused to subscribe to old, prejudicial narratives about crime. According to Stevenson, he “consistently humanized people who were meant to be objects of scorn and derision.”
Stevenson’s essay is a brisk and eloquent snapshot of the history of American crime as seen through the lens of race. He notes the screeching dissonance during the slavery era of laws against kidnapping that did not protect Black people, and laws against sexual assault and rape that did not protect Black women. He notes equally egregious discrepancies in 19th-century punishments and sentencing: A White man who killed or raped a Black woman might get a fine of $100, whereas a Black man convicted of the same crime against a White woman could expect mandatory execution.
After the Civil War, Whites continued to commit violence against Blacks with impunity. In Memphis in 1866, for instance, White mobs killed 46 African Americans over three days. Fear of Black criminality, Stevenson writes, was used to justify “crime control” strategies — such as laws against assembling after dark or in groups of more than five people — that authorities enacted whenever Black people succeeded or asserted their independence. Fines and other draconian penalties created spirals of dependency that could be “worse than slavery.”
Between 1880 and 1950, lynchings were committed in open defiance of the law, terrorizing a Black population that proceeded to escape to the ghettos of the North in massive numbers.
If all of this were mere history — a series of episodes confined to the past — it would be one thing. But Parks’s photographs are alive to the many ways in which crime in the 1950s was a continuation of this legacy. Sixty years after he took these photographs, it’s difficult to deny the conclusion that today’s crime-related inequities, from mass incarceration to police brutality, are likewise an extension of this racist legacy.
Big-city street crime has been in steady decline for three decades now. And yet the complexities and inequities of American crime still hinge on race and are still crudely narrated in the media.
Parks’s photographs present a more insightful, delicate and disinterested view. They remind us that an atmosphere is not the same as a narrative. One is complex, pervasive, inchoate and, like a fog, it can lift. The other is linear. Like an obsession, it keeps corkscrewing ahead, leaving all kinds of damage in its wake.