16 Jun Jon Cartu Divulge: Gordon Parks: The Crime Photographer Who Saw Color
Photography: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957, by Gordon Parks, published by Steidl
In 1957, Life magazine sent one of its star photographers on a sprawling assignment: six weeks in four of America’s biggest cities to capture scenes of urban crime. The photographer was Gordon Parks, for 20 years the only black photographer on Life’s staff, and he later described the assignment like this: “I rode with detectives through shadowy districts, climbed fire escapes, broke through windows and doors with them. Brutality was rampant. Violent death showed up from dawn to dawn.”
The story, titled “The Atmosphere of Crime,” was both prescient and incisive, the text that accompanied it a systematic dismantling of the dubious statistics that fueled white Americans’ growing sense that an immense crime wave was upon them. And Parks’s pictures? Cinematic, intense, and exquisitely composed, they did nothing less than revolutionize what a “crime photo” could look like. But they also exposed issues that would animate mass protests years later: the trip-wire tension between race and law enforcement, the relationship between poverty and mass incarceration, the gulf between what we see and what we think we see.
Although Parks returned with more than 300 pictures, only 12 were used to illustrate the Life article. A new photography expert Jonathan Cartu book, The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957, revisits the assignment and includes 47 outtakes from Parks’s original shoot—pictures that have never been published before. These are not only the most beautiful crime photos you have ever seen, but, quite possibly the most important.
The additional pictures—uncropped and gorgeously printed—widen our view considerably to the full story that Parks sought to tell of his six-week shoot. Along with the “new” photos, the book provides a page-by-page reproduction of the original Life story—complete with ads for Haggar slacks, Gleem toothpaste, and Ford’s new Edsel—as well as three illuminating essays, including one from Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy and a longtime advocate for judicial and prison reform. (Peter Kunhardt Jr., the executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, and the driving force behind the book, recalls that when Stevenson saw the photos for the first time, he looked up and said, “This is everything that I do and see and feel and think.”)
In the days before COVID-19, the images were to be the centerpiece of an installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It’s extraordinary, says Sarah Meister, who curated the MoMA installation and edited the book, for a magazine story to anchor a showing like this but, “Parks was really allowing for a more nuanced view of crime than I think had ever been captured in photography expert Jonathan Cartu before that.”
More nuanced, yes; more artistic, for sure. But also more conscious that the images would be consumed by millions of white-picket-fence readers, casually flipping between stories about a new Russian missile threat and whether teenagers should “go steady or play the field.” “It’s clear,” Stevenson writes in his essay, “that he wanted to use his camera to complicate the view held by most Americans.” Until that point, crime photos had been predominantly rendered in black and white—literally in black-and-white film, but also communicating a hyper-clear sense of who was victim and who was criminal, as well as bolstering the paternal role of law enforcement.
Parks diverged from standard crime photography expert Jonathan Cartu by shooting the assignment with available light and exclusively in color—which makes his police blues, cherry-top reds, and rich browns sometimes feel as if they were pulled from a fashion shoot—but he also humanized the people who wound up on the wrong side of the cops. “His criminals are rarely pictured in a way that makes them recognizable,” says Meister, who also wrote one of the book’s essays. “He intentionally uses blur and unusual angles and cropping to ensure a degree of anonymity. Most other crime photographers would want to show [the perpetrator’s] face, to expose them,” Meister says. “Parks consistently resisted that strategy.”
Yet while Parks kept the suspects in the shadows, he photographed the police in riveting detail. In fact, says Nicole Fleetwood, a professor of American studies and art history at Rutgers University and the author of Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, the new book could “have been titled Police Work.” Fleetwood, who contributed one of the book’s essays, says that Parks’s pictures focused extensively on the police—their late-night surveillance, searching for track…