Harlem Argument

Don’t miss the New York Times Lens feature Gordon Parks’s Harlem Argument written by Maurice Berger, which looks at a show organized by Russell Lord for the New Orleans Museum of Art  in collaboration with The Gordon Parks Foundation and shown at NOMA in 2013-4. You have to register to get access to the museum’s pages about the show, but you can read their press release and articles by John D’Addario and offsite in a blog by John Edwin Mason.

It’s probably best to start by viewing the essay as it was published in LIFE over around nine pages (four double page spreads and two half pages) on the TIME site, – it starts on page 21 of the gallery, and viewed at full screen the text is legible too. The gallery also has separate views of some of the images they used and a few they didn’t, and again has text by Mason.

The New York Times feature comes as the show is open at Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center in Poughkeepsie, NY until Dec 13th 2015.  The essay ‘Harlem Gang Leader‘, published in LIFE Magazine, November 1, 1948 was Gordon Park’s first for LIFE, and although it is a powerful essay, I think it is probably true to say that the photographer lost the argument.  Red, the gang leader Leonard Jackson, as Berger writes:

“was dismayed by the photo essay’s portrayal of him as a slick gangster, living a fundamentally unhappy and lawless life. “Damn, Mr. Parks, you made a criminal out of me,” the photographer recalled him saying after the essay was published. “I look like Bogart and Cagney all mixed up together.””

Gordon Parks devotes a chapter of his autobiography, ‘Voices In the Mirror‘ to the story. At the time he was about twice the age of the teenage gang members he was photographing and impressed them with a flash car he was driving, a Buick Roadmaster which helped him gain their confidence. He also mentions that some of the pictures were taken with the help of an infra-red flash rigged up for him by LIFE and goes on to comment about the editing – but makes no suggestion that Red was dissatisfied with the article. On p110 he writes:

“There had been some contention between the editors and myself during the layout of the story.They had wanted to show Red on the cover with a smoking gun in his hand. I fought against it, even destroyed the negative to be sure it wasn’t used for such a purpose.”

Parks wanted to show a more rounded view of Harlem and the life of the gang members, but he still beleived that the essay had a positive effect, bringing gang violence to the attention of the public and also helping to cut the murder rate in Harlem, as least temporarily. He also recounts how almost 40 years latger, Red got back in touch to tell him he was getting an education and trying to stop Harlem youths taking the road he had.

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