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Six Pictures: Gordon Parks’ “Atmosphere of Crime”

Six Pictures: Gordon Parks’ “Atmosphere of Crime”

A timely installation at New York’s Museum of Modern Art looks at the way photographers—Gordon Parks chief among them—look at crime.

How do you photograph crime? If you’re the police, you snap dead-eye, nearly defamatory mug shots of the accused. If you’re Weegee, you turn your flash on the sidewalk-splayed victims. But if you’re Gordon Parks, Life magazine’s groundbreaking photographer, you capture something more complicated, more illusive, more, well, groundbreaking. 

For a marquee 1957 Life story that would eventually be titled “The Atmosphere of Crime,” Parks, for years the magazine’s only Black photographer, spent six weeks in four of America’s largest cities, watching closely as law enforcement closely watched the cities’ inhabitants. He returned with 300 color photos that documented cops busting down doors, needles filling veins with heroin, suit-wearing detectives interrogating handcuffed suspects.

But between the harrowing action shots, Parks found nuance that hadn’t previously been photographed: Images that illustrate the way white America perceives crime, and how the very act of looking for crime can actually feed the conditions that cause it. The pictures themselves—the first crime photographs shot in color—are masterworks, sweeping in their scope, cinematic in their presentation, and saturated with the kinds of rich reds and blues and browns that, in another context, would be fitting for a fashion spread.

While Life’s editors sympathized with Parks’ perspective, they also knew that their audience hankered for juicy, pulpy, crime-y pictures; the result was a story that only hinted at the power of his photographs. Their full impact was understood last June when the Gordon Parks Foundation teamed-up with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to release The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957(Steidl),a remarkable book that includes 47 outtakes from the shoot. And now, at time when police tactics and prison reform pass for breakfast-table chatter, a new installation at MoMA shows the pictures in yet a different light, contextualizing Parks’ work by looking at how photographers have shot crime over the years. 

With “Gordon Parks and The Atmosphere of Crime,” MoMA puts 17 of Parks’ prints on display—the majority seldom-seen and six never before displayed. Hung on prison-grey walls in its own 1,000-square-foot room, the installation features 38 crime photos, including those made by legends like Dorothea Lange, Danny Lyon, and Weegee, but also includes a three-minute clip from Parks’ 1971 film Shaft as well as his original story as it appeared in the pages of Life.  

Here, Sarah Meister, a curator of photography at MoMA, and the editor of the “Atmosphere” book, takes a close look at six pictures from the show.

Down on the corner

Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006). Untitled, New York, New York. 1957. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund. © 2020 Gordon Parks Foundation

If Parks had one goal in mind as he followed detectives up fire escapes, observed their interrogations, and patrolled the city streets in the back of their cherry tops, it was to up-end the way that Life’s white, middle class readers thought about crime—and this picture, says Meister, is a case in point. Until Parks shot “Atmosphere,” she says, crime had been depicted in a clear-cut way: good guys, bad guys, and the almighty cops. But Parks approached it differently. “His pictures, and this one in particular, complicate our sense of what crime is,” she says. “If we look at this scene and find ourselves anticipating a crime, we have to ask ourselves why that is. Is it because it’s a poor neighborhood? Because it’s at night? Is it because guys are hanging out on the corner? But where’s the crime in that?” You can’t look at the image for long without having your assumptions destabilized, she says, and because of that, “These pictures are different from everything that had come before.”

Show of force

Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006). Untitled. 1957. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund. © 2020 Gordon Parks Foundation

By being the first photographer to shoot crime in color, Parks is literally asking his viewers to look beyond a black and white, cut-and-dried perspective and consider the more far-reaching, more subtle issues surrounding crime and law enforcement. But there’s also just the pure artistry of his color: “This picture in black and white would lose its power,” says Meister. “But with the cinematic qualities—the lights, the blue twilight sky, the silhouette—Parks has made a seductive picture that feels like an invitation.” (Fittingly, Meister opens the installation with it.) “I think Parks understood,” she explains, “that part of how you hold people’s attention is through the seduction of the color.” Why did Parks choose to photograph the cop amid the bright lights of New York’s theater district? And do so from an angle that makes him look heroic? One interpretation: Parks is setting the stage for the drama to come. Another: He is presenting the police as heroes only to take a shine off that image as the story progresses.

Busting down the door

Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006). Raiding Detectives, Chicago, Illinois. 1957. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund. © 2020 Gordon Parks Foundation

Life’s editors ran this electrifying picture of a kick-down-the-door raid in the magazine, but by choosing to crop it as a tight vertical (as opposed to the original, which you see here), they stripped the image of its context—the dirty walls, the dingy lighting—and of the larger point that Parks was trying to make. “By including the hallway,” Meister explains, “Parks is illustrating that crime and criminality should not be approached as isolated problems, but that to address them, you also have to look at the broader circumstances, at how people lived. He wants his viewers to grapple with this context.”

A degree of anonymity

Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006). Detectives Grilling a Suspect, Chicago, Illinois. 1957.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund. © 2020 Gordon Parks Foundation

As a photographer embedded and working closely with these Chicago detectives, Parks could have taken this picture from any vantage point. “He could shown them in profile,” says Meister. “He could have gone around to the other side of the desk.” So why did he frame it this way? While most crime photographers sought to show the perpetrator’s face, Parks chose to shoot the alleged criminals in his photo essay from unexpected angles, in shadow, and with blur to “allow the suspect a degree of anonymity, some dignity,” she says. Beyond that, Meister adds, Parks consciously framed this picture to show the contrast between the detective’s loosened tie and the likely painful restriction of the suspect’s hands. “A photographer can get lucky once and can make a great picture,” says Meister, who has been curating at MoMA for 21 years. “But anyone looking across this series, or Parks’ career, knows that nothing is accidental here. It’s what Parks is able to distill from a lifetime of looking.”

Trapped by Weegee’s camera

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) (American, born Austria. 1899–1968). Charles Sodokoff and Arthur Webber Use Their Top Hats to Hide Their Faces. 1942. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund. © 2020 Weegee/ICP/Getty Images

One of Weegee’s great contributions to the history of photography, “is the way in which he exploits a flash for its expressive possibilities,” Meister says. “He understands that what a flash does is render each texture, each surface with a specificity that then makes for a great photograph.” In this perfectly composed picture, Weegee comes in tight to create a scene as trapped and claustrophobic as the suspects were likely feeling. What to make of Weegee affording the suspects anonymity a full 15 years before Parks made that a signature of his “Atmosphere” essay? “I think Weegee was thrilled for these two individuals to have their top hats masking their faces for what it meant visually,” Meister explains, “but I would say it’s quite unlike how Parks was conceptually approaching the subject of due process and dignity.” 

Danny Lyon’s prison perspective

Danny Lyon (American, born 1942). Dominoes, Walls Unit, Texas. 1967-69. The Museum of Modern Art, New York © Danny Lyon

In the late ‘60s, Danny Lyon spent over a year in six Texas prisons making, as Meister puts it, “socially engaged” photos with the same sort of intentionality that Parks brought to his work a decade earlier. “When you think of the tools available to photographers,” she says, “point of view is one of the most important.” Here, she explains, “Lyon has not only imprisoned the men in the frame, but has us looking down on them, maybe even judging them which, of course, is what society does. That’s a very intentional choice.” And by showing the everydayness of what they’re doing—passing the endless hours by playing dominoes—“he’s also elevating people’s sense of sympathy for the men.”

By Bill Shapiro

Bill Shapiro is the former Editor-in-Chief of Life magazine; on Instagram, he’s @billshapiro

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