“I chose my camera as a weapon against all the things I dislike about America—poverty, racism, discrimination,” Gordon Parks asserted. Born in 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks was the youngest of 15 children in a family deeply affected by the racial terror used to enforce Jim Crow segregation. Yet Parks’s experience of Black life in America ultimately straddled geographies, economic strata, and social circumstance.
When Parks lost his mother at 15, he moved from his small Kansas town to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with his sister. He was exposed to both urban and rural poverty and the racial hierarchies of the South and North: he survived an attempted lynching; endured a period of homelessness; composed a radio hit; worked as a waiter; toured with a semi-professional basketball team; played in a traveling orchestra; planted trees with the Civilian Conservation Corps; and became a father. After getting his first camera in 1937, Parks went to work as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, before becoming a regular contributor to Ebony and Vogue. In 1949, he became the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine; in 1969, he became the first African American to direct a major Hollywood film, The Learning Tree. Parks’s list of accomplishments stands as a testament to his skill and resourcefulness as a photographer, filmmaker, memoirist, novelist, choreographer, composer, and poet, but what is most remarkable is how these experiences shaped his powerfully humanizing vision.
Parks was an advocate for civil rights and tackled issues of race, poverty, and policing in America throughout his career. In his 1948 photo essay “Harlem Gang Leader,” Parks documents the life of 17-year-old Leonard “Red” Jackson with the hope of humanizing the individuals involved in Harlem gang wars and encouraging support for the community through social programs. Throughout the 1960s, Parks reflected on the Civil Rights Movement; his portrait of Malcolm X at a Harlem rally positions the popular activist as a powerful figure between the people amassed before him and the state, symbolized by the fragmented flag to which he points. In 1971, Parks directed the blockbuster Shaft, which upends racial stereotypes in its portrayal of John Shaft, a Black hero detective who takes down white criminals.
In 1957, Parks was assigned to photograph for a series of articles addressing crime in the United States. With reporter Henry Suydam, Parks shot on the streets of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, producing color images that evoke what Life described as “The Atmosphere of Crime.” From this larger body of work, 12 pictures were reproduced in the September 9 issue of Life. Shot with available light, figures become silhouettes; the soft haze of a hallway feels warm as a man raises his hands; a person’s legs lay bare the scars of poverty and addiction. Parks does not name or identify “the criminal,” but instead exposes what Nicole Fleetwood describes as “police work”—the policing practices that criminalize poverty and race. Here, police work is rendered as violent and bureaucratic: detectives raid an apartment, attack a man in the hallway, file paperwork, speak on the radio, file more paperwork while we wait. The series speaks to a pivotal moment in a long history of policing in America that extends from the patrolling of enslaved people to this moment in 1957, shortly before Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on crime and the increasing militarization of the police. Considered today, Parks’s work on crime becomes a catalyst for reevaluating the intertwined histories of photography and criminality in the United States: a story of surveillance and racialized optics in which we are still entrenched.
The signs in Parks’s 1963 photograph Harlem Rally, Harlem, New York echo the refrain of protests against the police state and anti-Black racism then and now, during an unprecedented movement in defense of Black life: WE ARE LIVING IN A POLICE STATE / LIBERTY OR DEATH. The abolitionist call articulated within the frame reverberates across the photograph; the refrain repeats. Today, Parks’s photographs offer the opportunity to reckon with the hard truths of our history.
By River Bullock, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, Department of Photography, 2020