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Feb
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Photographs: Gordon Parks “The Atmosphere of Crime” 1957

February 2020

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, New York, New York' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, New York, New York
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
13 ¾ x 21″ (35 × 53.3 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

 

The photo essay as haunting and elegiac poem: “a richly-hued, cinematic portrayal of a largely hidden world: that of violence, police work and incarceration, seen with empathy and candour.”

Parks is one of my favourite photographers. He continues to astound me with his experimentation and percipience, his sensitive insight, into his subjects becoming: “a more nuanced view that reflected the social and economic factors tied to criminal behaviour and a rare window into the working lives of those charged with preventing and prosecuting it.” All captured by his probing camera – using natural light, flash, low depth of field, blur, high angles, low angles, perspective,  transience, informality and chiaroscuro.

Two photographs in the posting suffice to speak of the photographers art: pointing figure, veins, clenched first and revelation, the blue fairy of light, in the beautiful Narcotics Addict, Chicago, Illinois; and body carriage interior, overweight man, braced, shadow, fag hanging out of mouth, pulling – all dreams laid bare. The photographer crouching at the same level. Shooting Victim in Cook County Morgue, Chicago, Illinois.

Wonderful to see the layout of the Life Magazine photo essay as well. Notice how Raiding Detectives, Chicago, Illinois is cropped claustrophobically tight, giving little sense of the passage of the tenement. Similarly, the hand and cigarette in Untitled, Chicago, Illinois (cover for the new book about the series), is bound by the cropping and shadows. Other images from the shoots Drug Search, Chicago, Illinois and Untitled, San Quentin, California are also used, expanding the context of the scene.

His photographs “give shape to the ground against which poverty, addiction, and race become criminalised,” allowing “Life’s readers to see the complexity of these chronically oversimplified situations.” They also enable us to enter a liminal space, where we feel both the mundane horror and specular beauty of life in medias res.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

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Many thankx to the Museum of Modern Art for allowing me to publish some of the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 x 17 15/16″ (30.1 x 45.6 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
13 ¾ x 21″ (35 x 53.3 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Raiding Detectives, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Raiding Detectives, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 x 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

 

MoMA Acquires 56 Photographs from Gordon Parks’s Groundbreaking 1957 Series “The Atmosphere of Crime”

The Museum of Modern Art has acquired 56 prints from American artist Gordon Parks’s series of colour photographs made in 1957 for a Life magazine photo essay titled “The Atmosphere of Crime.” The Museum and The Gordon Parks Foundation collaborated closely on the selection of 55 modern colour prints that MoMA purchased from the Foundation, and the Foundation has also given the Museum a rare vintage gelatin silver print (a companion to a print Parks himself gave the Museum in 1993). A generous selection of these prints will go on view in May 2020 as part of the first seasonal rotation of the Museum’s newly expanded and re-envisioned collection galleries. The collection installation Gordon Parks and “The Atmosphere of Crime” will be located on the fourth floor, with Parks’s work as an anchor for exploring representations of criminality in photography, with a particular focus on work made in the United States.

One of the preeminent photographers of the mid-20th century, Gordon Parks (1912-2006) left behind a body of work that documents American life and culture from the early 1940s to the 2000s. Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks worked as a youth in St. Paul, Minnesota, before discovering photography in 1937. He would come to view it as his “weapon of choice” for attacking issues including race relations, poverty, urban life, and injustice. After working for the US government’s Farm Security Administration in the early 1940s, Parks found success as a fashion photographer and a regular contributor to Ebony, Fortune, Glamour, and Vogue before he was hired as the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine in 1948.

In 1957, Life assigned Parks to photograph for the first in a series of articles addressing the perceived rise of crime in the US. With reporter Henry Suydam, Parks traversed the streets of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, producing a range of evocative colour images, 12 of which were featured in the debut article, “The Atmosphere of Crime,” on September 9, 1957. Parks’s empathetic, probing views of crime scenes, police precincts, hospitals, morgues, and prisons do not name or identify “the criminal,” but instead give shape to the ground against which poverty, addiction, and race become criminalised. Shot using available light, Parks’s atmospheric photographs capture mysterious nocturnal activity unfolding on street corners and silhouetted figures with raised hands in the murky haze of a tenement hallway.

A robust selection from this acquisition will anchor a display within a fourth-floor collection gallery, titled Gordon Parks and “The Atmosphere of Crime.” Using Parks’s work as a point of departure, the installation will draw from a range of other works in the Museum’s collection, offering varied representations of crime and criminality. Since the 1940s, the Museum has collected and exhibited photographs of crime as represented in newspapers and tabloids, exemplified by the dramatic, flash-lit work of Weegee, complemented by 19th-century precedents such as mug shots, whose purported objectivity was expected to facilitate the identification of criminals, as well as acquisitions across media that point to subsequent investigations and more contemporary concerns.

While Parks’s work was first displayed at MoMA in 1948, and was included in the landmark exhibition The Family of Man in 1955, it wasn’t until 1993 that five of his photographs were approved for the Museum’s collection (including a large-scale gelatin silver print from the 1957 series on crime mentioned above). The Museum has since supported the acquisition of additional vintage prints in 2011 and 2014 (including Harlem Newsboy, currently on view on the Museum’s fifth floor).

“As an artist of the highest order and a passionate advocate for civil rights, Parks made iconic photographs that continue to speak poignantly to the complexity of cultural politics and racial bias in the United States,” said Sarah Meister, curator in MoMA’s Department of Photography. “This acquisition substantially improves the Museum’s holdings of Gordon Parks’s achievement, reflecting our commitment to the artist and fostering the possibility of situating his work within a broad range of contemporary concerns. His enduring impact on the history of photography and representation cannot be overstated.”

“MoMA’s acquisition reinforces the significance of Gordon Parks as an artist whose practice continues to inspire future generations,” said Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., executive director of The Gordon Parks Foundation. “Parks knew that his camera could be a powerful weapon, more potent than violence, and that pictures and words could further social change. The Atmosphere of Crime series remains as timeless and relevant today as when the photographs were made more than 50 years ago.”

Sarah Meister has also collaborated on The Gordon Parks Foundation’s forthcoming publication Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957, to be published by Steidl in spring 2020. The book’s expansive selection of never-before-published photographs from Parks’s original reportage was selected and sequenced by Meister, and her illustrated text situates this critically important photo essay within both Parks’s career and historic representations of crime and criminality. Other contributors include Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy (Spiegel & Grau, 2014), and Nicole Fleetwood, Professor of American studies and art history at Rutgers University and author of Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Harvard University Press, 2020). The book also features a foreword by MoMA’s director Glenn D. Lowry and The Gordon Parks Foundation’s executive director, Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr.

Press release from MoMA

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Drug Search, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Drug Search, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 x 17 15/16″ (30.1 × 45.6 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) '"Wrong Place at the Wrong Time," Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
“Wrong Place at the Wrong Time” Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, San Quentin, California' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, San Quentin, California
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
11 7/8 x 17 15/16″ (30.1 x 45.6 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Detectives Grilling a Suspect, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Detectives Grilling a Suspect, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Knifing Victim I, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Knifing Victim I, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

 

When Life magazine asked Gordon Parks to illustrate a recurring series of articles on crime in the United States in 1957, he had already been a staff photographer for nearly a decade, the first African American to hold this position. Parks embarked on a six-week journey that took him and a reporter to the streets of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Unlike much of his prior work, the images made were in colour. The resulting eight-page photo-essay “The Atmosphere of Crime” was noteworthy not only for its bold aesthetic sophistication, but also for how it challenged stereotypes about criminality then pervasive in the mainstream media. They provided a richly-hued, cinematic portrayal of a largely hidden world: that of violence, police work and incarceration, seen with empathy and candour.

Parks rejected clichés of delinquency, drug use and corruption, opting for a more nuanced view that reflected the social and economic factors tied to criminal behaviour and a rare window into the working lives of those charged with preventing and prosecuting it. Transcending 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, Parks coaxed his camera to do what it does best: record reality so vividly and compellingly that it would allow Life‘s readers to see the complexity of these chronically oversimplified situations. The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957 includes an expansive selection of never-before-published photographs from Parks’ original reportage.

Co-published with The Gordon Parks Foundation and The Museum of Modern Art. Text by Nicole Fleetwood and Bryan Stevenson.

Text from the Steidl website [Online] Cited 16/02/2020

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Narcotics Addict, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Narcotics Addict, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Police Bring in Victim, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Police Bring in Victim, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Shooting Victim in Cook County Morgue, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Shooting Victim in Cook County Morgue, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2019
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

Gordon Parks' photo essay 'The Atmosphere of Crime' in 'Life Magazine', September 9, 1957

Gordon Parks' photo essay 'The Atmosphere of Crime' in 'Life Magazine', September 9, 1957

Gordon Parks' photo essay 'The Atmosphere of Crime' in 'Life Magazine', September 9, 1957

Gordon Parks' photo essay 'The Atmosphere of Crime' in 'Life Magazine', September 9, 1957

Gordon Parks' photo essay 'The Atmosphere of Crime' in 'Life Magazine', September 9, 1957

 

Gordon Parks’ photo essay The Atmosphere of Crime in Life Magazine September 9, 1957

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006) 'Untitled, Chicago, Illinois' 1957

 

Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Untitled, Chicago, Illinois
1957
Gelatin silver print
19 ¼ x 13″ (48.9 × 33 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Gordon Parks Foundation
© The Gordon Parks Foundation

 

'The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957' (cover)

 

The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957 (cover)
Text by Nicole Fleetwood and Bryan Stevenson
Series edited by Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr.
Edited by Sarah Hermanson Meister
168 pages, 70 images
Hardback / Half-linen
25 x 29 cm
English
ISBN 978-3-95829-696-1
Published Spring 2020

 

 

Museum of Modern Art website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Mask’ 1994

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