Gordon Parks and “The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957”

September 22, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, journalists, photojournalism, writers, writing.

Gordon Parks bought his first camera in 1938 when he was 25 years old and living in Seattle, Washington.

Up to that time, Parks did not have much of a life. Born in Kansas in 1912, Parks was one of 15 children and experienced the cruelties of racism when some white kids pitched him into a river where they expected him to drown. Soon thereafter, his mother died, and the 11-year-old went to live with his sister in Minneapolis.

That living arrangement didn’t work out, and Parks found himself on the street fending for himself. He knocked about doing this and that in first one place and then another. After seeing some pictures of some migrant workers in a magazine, Parks bought that camera and taught himself how to take pictures. The camera cost $7.50, and it changed his life.

Parks honed his photography skills through his own portrait studio, freelance assignments, and a fellowship with the Farm Security Administration. Parks could use the camera as few others could to express his ideas about the society in which he was living. His “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.” (shown here) is one of his most famous pictures. It shows Ella Watson, a member of a cleaning crew at the FSA building posed in a manner depicting the famous Grant Wood painting, American Gothic.

In the late 1940s Parks was a member of the Life magazine staff and in 1957 was asked to take on a six-week assignment that would document crime in large American cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. The resulting photo essay was an eight-page spread in Life titled “The Atmosphere of Crime.”

Those photographs, taken more than 50 years ago, have a special relevance in today’s public discussion of crime and racism. Their relevance is emphasized by the publication of a book Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957, published by the Gordon Parks Foundation, working in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art.

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 behavior 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.. Source: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957 – Gordon Parks – Steidl Verlag

In the next decade, Parks moved from still photography to film and wrote and directed the first major studio film by a Black director. The film, Shaft, was a huge box-office hit, and Parks went on to produce several more films.

Parks collected major awards in many areas of photography, film, and music before he died at the age of 93 in 2006. Parks’ memory is preserved not only by the Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville, New York, but also by the Gordon Parks Museum in Fort Scott, Kansas, where he was born.


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