By the time Gordon Parks sauntered into the office of Life magazine’s famously sharp-eyed picture editor Wilson Hicks without an appointment in 1948, he’d already made some of his most striking images, using his camera “as a weapon” to attack American racism and injustice.
Before Hicks could throw him out, Parks handed him a sheaf of his photos, and the man responsible for assembling the world’s most impressive team of photographic talent was duly impressed. “He gruffly mumbled a question that caught me off guard,” Parks wrote in his autobiography. “‘Got something in mind that you’d like to do?’”
He hadn’t walked in expecting to talk about an assignment, but Parks had been working on an idea about a series on black gangs. He delivered an impromptu pitch to Hicks, and Parks left Life with two gigs. He got started on a photo essay on Harlem street gangs, and he stepped in to cover the upcoming Paris fashion season (he’d been shooting for Vogue for several years).
The fascinating new BAMPFA exhibit Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument, which opened on Sept. 27 and runs through Dec. 17, unpacks the wary collaboration between Parks and Life on his breakthrough photo series “Harlem Gang Leader,” which was slated for the magazine’s cover until Parks destroyed a negative rather than betray the trust of his primary subject, 17-year-old Leonard “Red” Jackson.
Though the essay ended up running deep in the issue of Nov. 1, 1948 (Air Force Lt. General Lauris Norstad got the cover instead of an image of Jackson holding a smoking gun), it catapulted Parks into the top ranks of Life’s vaunted photographic team. Over the next two decades Parks alternated between covering high fashion and producing epochal photo essays on subjects like poverty in Brazil and Harlem, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panthers in Oakland and Berkeley. Parks died in 2006 at the age of 93, active until the end.
Often in the position of explaining African-American life to Life’s vast white audience, Parks navigated a delicate balancing act to avoid reducing black experiences to clichés, and The Making of an Argument offers a penetrating, behind-the-scenes look at his first difficult dance with Life.
Starting with the original photos that ran in 1948 with the Life text, the exhibit drills down into the editorial process with contact sheets featuring dozens of images the magazine decided not to run, including scrawled editorial comments and crop marks.
What’s most striking at first is how good the Life photo editors are. Parks possessed a classical sense of composition, and his images are consistently edited for maximum power, intimacy and presence, so that the viewer feels ringside as Jackson and his Midtowners gang engage in a series of brawls and confrontations.
BAMPFA presents the only West Coast stop for Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument, which originated at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA).
In a 2001 conversation with Parks before the Oakland Museum of California’s expanded retrospective, Half Past Autumn, the photographer talked about the importance of establishing relationships with his subjects before he started shooting.
“I didn’t take the camera in for about a week,” he told me, referring to a devastating 1968 series on urban poverty focusing on the Fontenelle family in Harlem.
“I took the kids to the drug store or for a hotdog and the mother and father are there and by the time I really started shooting I was trusted. I trusted them and they trusted me. It was the same way with Red Jackson, the gang leader. He had to build trust in me and I certainly had to build trust in him, since I was mixed up in their gang wars a lot of the time.”
Looking at the array of images that Parks shot and what ended up in Life it’s easy to see how “Harlem Gang Leader” reduces him to the titular role, leaving out images that complicate his story and humanize the neighborhood. Several images of Jackson’s younger brother at home reading don’t make the cut. “Not gangster,” an editor wrote on the contact sheet.
Less successfully, the exhibit argues that the display ads next to the bleak final image of Jackson walking alone at dusk make for a jarring juxtaposition. Easily ignorable and relatively unobtrusive, the advertisements for Jujyfruits and Lakeland overcoats seem benign compared to the jarring commercial radio and television transitions from the horror and tragedy in the news to food porn, pharmecuticals and chirpy car ads.
“Harlem Gang Leader” ends with a deeply satisfying twist that left me wanting to know much more about Red Jackson, and with new appreciation for the polymathic Parks, a true American renaissance man who excelled at just about every field entered. One can measure his accomplishments with a list of African-American firsts — first black photographer for the magazines Vogue and Life, first black director in Hollywood — but that only hints at the obstacles he had to overcome.
Parks didn’t just break through barriers, he brought a luminous humanism to every creative endeavor, from his ground-breaking photo essays to his writing, which transformed his experiences growing up surrounded by racism into the classic coming of age novel The Learning Tree. He was also a gifted composer and pioneering filmmaker who changed the face of American cinema with the 1971’s Shaft.
The BAMPFA presentation features screenings of multiple films directed by Parks, including two early documentary films, Flavio (1964), Diary of a Harlem Family (1968), the autobiographical feature film The Learning Tree (1969), and the self-portrait documentary Moments Without Proper Names (1988).
The youngest of 15 children born to a poor, church-going family in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks lost his mother at the age of 15. He moved to St. Paul to stay with a sister, but her husband soon put him out on the street and he had to fend for himself. His musical skills landed him a job when he was hired to play piano at a brothel.
As a young man working as a waiter on the railroad, he first encountered the searing photographs of Depression-ridden America taken for the Farm Security Administration by the likes of Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange and Carl Mydans, which stoked his fascination with photography. During stopovers in Chicago he studied the works of great modernist painters at the Art Institute of Chicago, training his eye in composition.
A brutally satiric echo of ‘American Gothic’
By 1942 he gained a position in Washington, D.C. at the FSA and on his first day on the job he created an unforgettable indictment. Furious at the pervasive grip of Jim Crow in the nation’s capitol, he came back to the FSA and struck up a conversation with an African-American charwoman, Ella Watson. Positioning her in front of an American flag with a broom in her right hand and a mop in her left, and her tired but resolute gaze confronting the viewer, Parks created “American Gothic,” a brutally satiric echo of Grant Woods’ bucolic painting of the same name.
“That picture is considered to be my signature photograph and strangely enough it’s probably one of my first professional photographs,” Parks told me. “It was so strong, because I was just so honest in what I felt. I was so hurt by what I experienced that day in Washington. A lot of the senators from the South didn’t like that picture. They considered it an indictment of America, and I suppose it was.”
It was Ingrid Bergman who first planted the idea of directing a movie to Parks when he was covering the scandal created by her affair with director Roberto Rossellini in 1949. Two decades passed before he got the chance, but, in 1969, at the urging of John Cassavetes, Warner Bros. hired Parks to direct a film of his novel The Learning Tree. He not only broke Hollywood’s seemingly impregnable color barrier, he wrote the screenplay, composed the score and served as executive director for the film.
As a director, his most influential work was Shaft, the seminal detective story starring Richard Roundtree that launched a wave of blacksploitation movies. On all his films, Parks not only created three-dimensional characters for black actors, he insisted the studio hire qualified African Americans for roles behind the camera as well.
When I caught up with him in 2001, he had finished a novel about the life of 19th-century English painter J.M.W. Turner (2003’s The Sun Stalker), and was hoping to direct a movie based on the book. Parks seemed to identify with Turner’s persistent creative drive, while he cited the painter’s atmospheric canvases as an influence on his later abstract images as a photographer.
“I admire the fact that he wouldn’t allow anything to limit him,” Parks said. “That’s how I’ve always felt. All that discrimination and poverty and bigotry never limited me in my work. I had something to do, so go out there and do it, the hell with discrimination. It’s like my mother used to say, ‘A white boy can do it, you can do it. Don’t come home with any excuses.’”