The Photojournalism of Gordon Parks

A new photobook titled Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime 1957 has been released. The book reproduces more than 50 of approximately 300 photographs Parks took during his Life Magazine assignment and is accompanied by essays on photojournalism social justice.

In honor of this collection’s release, I wanted to take the time to talk briefly about who Gordon Parks was and why it is important to remember him.

Let’s back up a little bit and go back to a few months ago, and the shocking killing of George Floyd that prompted protests in the streets of the United Streets and the world at large, as well as solidarity across social media platforms. In the wake of these protests, activists also took to social media to share photos taken by a man named Gordon Parks from the mid-’50s.

Film fans may Gordon Parks. He is best known as one of the architects of the Blacksploitation genre, not least of all because he directed one of its most famous movies, Shaft, from 1971. But from the ’40s to the ’70s, he worked as a photojournalist for several publications, including Life Magazine.

As a black man, he was a vocal supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and quite passionately captured black life in American at the time. Many of these images exposed mainstream misunderstandings of black poverty, marginalization and, crucially, how Black citizens were treated by the United States police force.

The series collected in the book was the product of a six-week journey across the US, photographing in the black neighborhoods of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Parks first published the images in 1957 across eight pages in the New York documentary photography magazine Life under the title of The Atmosphere of Crime.

He was actually hired as the first African American member of the staff for the magazine shortly thereafter and continued to work there before pursuing a career in filmmaking full-time, thus breaking color lines in photojournalism.

Looking at these photos, you can get a sense of how what he saw and captured went on to influence his later works, including Flavio, Diary of a Harlem Family, and the aforementioned Shaft, with which he shaped an iconic movement that was particularly popular in the ’70s, unapologetically aimed at an urban black audience and that continues to be super influential to this day.

Click here to buy my book of thoughts on film, Eye of the Beholder, on Amazon!

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