Gordon Parks Shot Photos, But LIFE Shaped Landmark Essay, In Exhibit At NOMA


American documentary photographer Gordon Parks began his career shooting portraits and fashion in Chicago and Washington, D.C., eventually landing a position with the Farm Security Administration alongside such notable fellow photographers as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. But it was his 1948 LIFE magazine photo essay on youth gang culture in Harlem that made Parks famous.

Focusing on the activities of a teenage gang leader named Leonard “Red” Jackson, the photographs under the title “Harlem Gang Leader” contained some of Parks’ most powerful and iconic images.

That photo essay, and the process that led to its publication, is the subject of a new exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument

Curated by NOMA’s Freeman Family Curator of Photographs Russell Lord, the exhibition explores the way Parks’ landmark work came together through artistic vision, social engagement and editorial selection.

Throughout a long career that also included work as a musician, writer and film director, Parks’ work was characterized by a strong sense of social engagement and a commitment to chronicling the African-American experience. For some audiences he remains best known for directing the 1971 action movie “Shaft” which, despite its contemporary reputation as a foremost example of 1970s “blaxploitation” cinema, broke ground and was well-received as a major Hollywood film featuring an African-American hero and predominantly African-American cast.

However, photo essays like the one Parks produced for LIFEcombined carefully chosen and edited photographs with captions and text that were not always Parks’ own. “Harlem Gang Leader” was a collaboration between the photographer and a team of editors, who often had competing visions about what kind of story the photographs were telling.

To illustrate that sometimes contentious process, Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument is built around archival material Lord obtained on loan from the Gordon Parks Foundation in New York, including Parks’ contact sheets, editorial materials and original photographic prints.

“The exhibition is an attempt to deconstruct (Parks’) photo essay and walk through the process to see how it was made,” Lord said.

According to Lord, Parks’ original vision for the gang series was somewhat lost, or at least altered, in the editorial process. After gaining Red Jackson’s trust, Parks was able to follow him around his community and photograph him in many different contexts relating to his gang activity and to his domestic life.

Parks’ intention was to contextualize youth gang activity in Harlem and explore its root causes in a society plagued by racism, poverty and educational inequality. Yet, it was the more violently charged images that formed the bulk of theLIFE essay.

The NOMA show begins with the 21 “Harlem Gang Leader” images as they were originally published in LIFE magazine minus their captions, so that, according to Lord, the viewer can engage with them on a “purely visual level” before exploring how this group of images was selected, edited and eventually published. Subsequent sections of the exhibition feature photographs from the series that didn’t make the final cut.

Throughout the exhibition, Lord said, he hopes viewers will ask themselves: “How much of what we see is Gordon Parks’ vision? How much is the work of the LIFE editors?”

The “Harlem Gang Leader” photo essay was both “typical and exceptional” of the kind of work LIFE published at the time, the curator said. All of LIFE’s photojournalists were subject to the same constraints of editorial oversight that Parks was, so the sensationalism of “Harlem Gang Leader” represented the type of photo essay LIFE published in order to appeal to a wide audience.

However, Lord noted, Parks was also the first African-American photographer on LIFE’s staff, and Parks’ photo essay was one of the first in LIFE’s history to focus on the particular concerns of the African-American community.

“Harlem Gang Leader” has a particular resonance for contemporary audiences, Lord said.

“The culture and glamorization of violence in the media are still very much with us,” he said. “And the systemic causes of this violence are the same as they were 60 years ago.

“There’s so much to discuss in Parks’ work, and I hope that this exhibition serves as a model for looking at his work in the future.”

“Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument”

WHEN: Thursday;through Jan. 19 (closed Mondays)
WHERE: New Orleans Museum of Art, 1 Collins Diboll Circle, City Park, New Orleans
INFO: (504) 658-4100; www.noma.org
ADMISSION: $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 children

Free Wednesdays, courtesy of The Helis Foundation