How the photographer Gordon Parks upended stereotypes of policing and crime in America

In the wake of the US protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, activists on social media have widely shared images taken by Gordon Parks in the mid 1950s.

Many of the images shared from far and wide have never been exhibited before, and many have largely remained obscure. Parks first published the images from the series in 1957 across eight pages in the New York documentary photography magazine Life, under the title The Atmosphere of Crime.

In comparison to other documentary photographers of his generation, Parks remains a fairly unheralded name in the annals of photography, beyond the moniker of being considered the first black photographer to “break the colour line” in the US.

Gordon Parks's Untitled, Chicago, Illinois, 1957 © Courtesy and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

A new monograph exploring the work and titled Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957, is now being published by Stiedl in conjunction with The Gordon Parks Foundation and Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The New York museum is also due to exhibit part of the series after it acquired the full set in February this year. MoMAs director Glenn Lowry writes of the series: “It transcended the romanticism of the gangster film, the suspense of the crime caper, and the racially biased depictions of criminality then prevalent in American popular culture.”

“Brutality was rampant. Violent death showed up from dawn to dawn” Gordon Parks

To create the series, Parks embarked on a six-week journey across the US, photographing in the black neighbourhoods of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He said of working on the series: “My assignment was to explore crime across America. It was a journey through hell. I rode with detectives through shadowy districts, climbed fire escapes, broke through windows and doors with them. Brutality was rampant. Violent death showed up from dawn to dawn.”

Gordon Parks's Untitled, Chicago, Illinois 1957 © Courtesy and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

Parks photographs illustrated a series of investigative articles on crime across the US, and marked the first time Parks was published by Life. Soon after, he was hired as the magazine's first African American staff photographer, where he would remain for more than 20 years.

The series, when published, exposed mainstream understandings of black poverty, marginalisation and, crucially, how black citizens were treated by US police. They served to counteract enduring media stereotypes of black criminality, forcing the readers of Life to reassess their beliefs about an experience that even today garners little attention in US media.

Gordon Parks's Raiding Detectives, Chicago, Illinois 1957 © Courtesy and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation

Parks images became a recurring campaigning presence in the ensuing Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which led to the Civil Rights Act and desegregation of public institutions. Their presence around the #BlackLivesMatter campaign today attests to their ongoing relevance.

Park remains probably best known popularly for his work in movies—in particular Shaft, which he directed in 1971. He was born in Kansas in 1912, the youngestRead More – Source