Gordon Parks was the first African American staff photographer for Life magazine. In the late 1940s, he proposed a story on the gang wars that were then consuming Harlem. Published in the November 1, 1948 issue under the title “Harlem Gang Leader,” it was one of his earliest photo essays for the magazine. Parks used his camera to share his insider’s view of life in the neighborhood amidst these clashes. At the heart of his story was Red Jackson, the young leader of the Midtowners gang. Parks shot hundreds of photographs that capture details of Jackson’s life, gang relations, and contemporary Harlem. Some of the pictures revel in the ambiguity that the camera afforded—this image of boys in the street could be read as playful if seen in a different context.
Of the hundreds of images Parks took, Life’s editors chose 21, which they cropped, printed, and sequenced into a narrative emphasizing the drama and sensation of the conflicts. Many magazine photographers, including Parks, resented the way the meaning and interpretation of their work was skewed.
Additional text from Seeing Through Photographs online course, Coursera, 2016