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Books: How Photographer Gordon Parks Revolutionized Crime Narratives

By David Schonauer   Wednesday September 2, 2020


In 1957, Gordon Parks found a new way to view crime.

A staff photographer at Life magazine for nearly a decade, Parks was assigned to follow police officers through the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. The goal was to document what the magazine would eventually brand the “Atmosphere of Crime.”

“But,” noted Artnet News recently, “Parks’s resulting photos did little to substantiate what many at the time feared was a growing trend of urban corruption. (Nor did the accompanying article, which debunked dubious statistics used as proof of an impending crime wave.) Instead, they show the machinery of the criminal justice system, calibrated against a century’s worth of class bias and racial injustice, humming right along.”

Some 60 shots from this prescient series—including the dozen that made it into the Life article—are featured in The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957, a book from the Gordon Parks Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art. (The photos had been slated to go on view at MoMA this spring before the lockdown hit.)

As Artnet noted, the images “have an eerie resonance with the discourse around law enforcement today.”

In an essay that opens the book, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, asks the question, “What do we mean by ‘crime’ in America?”

“From the beginning, the prosecution and punishment of crime in this country have been profoundly shaped by race, poverty, power, and status,” Stevenson writes. “For centuries politicians have stoked fear of crime and exploited perceived crime waves, while our public discourse about crime has been compromised by persistent inattention to our history of racial violence. There is a different narrative about ‘crime in America’ that we have for the most part ignored.”

“Parks’s ability to convey social and psychological subtleties with the camera, a notoriously exploitative instrument, is unrivaled, and his mastery is on full display here,” notes Artnet writer Taylor Dafoe, adding that “it’s tempting to read them as stills from a gritty noir flick: a pair of suit-and-tie cops kick down a door in one shot; in another, a thin pistol dangling from the arm of a dark figure is framed by a sliver of tungsten light from an apartment complex hallway.”

“But linger a little longer and a more sobering reality surfaces,” writes Dafore. “We see white police officers cuffing black men and the overstuffed corridors of a prison. A mortician with a cigarette in his mouth pulls a corpse from a drawer. A man injects heroin into his swollen, belt-choked arm.”

The images are cinematic in their power — Parks would use his eye for grit and color when directed the hit 1971 film Shaft. In his crime series, the use of color upends traditional black-and-white crime narratives about good versus evil.

“Until that point, crime photos had been predominantly rendered in black and white,” notes Bill Shapiro in The Atlantic, “literally in black-and-white film, but also communicating a hyper-clear sense of who was victim and who was criminal, as well as bolstering the paternal role of law enforcement.”

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