A new exhibition looks at how the legendary photographer used a filmmaker’s eye to make memorable documentary images.
Like all good movie trailers, the teaser for 1971’s Shaft came with a catchy tagline, one that managed to throw shade on Sean Connery and Steve McQueen: “Shaft. Hotter than Bond. Cooler than Bullitt. Rated R. If you want to see Shaft, ask your mama.” The film, released into a fast-moving stream of macho cop flicks, featured a hero that was much like the other lone-wolf detectives of his day: good with guns, fists, women, and snappy retorts. But Shaft’s director upended the genre by casting a Black star at the center of the action, flipping the conventional race and power dynamics, and in so doing, planted the seeds for what would become the “Blaxploitation” genre.
The film’s director was none other than Gordon Parks, the poet, author, composer, and, of course, world-famous LIFE magazine photographer who was, for decades, the only Black shooter on staff at “America’s Magazine.” To mark the 50th anniversary of this landmark film — one that still crackles in pop culture half a century later — the Howard Greenberg gallery in New York City is staging a smartly conceived exhibition, titled “A Choice of Weapons,” that focuses on Parks’ cinematic approach to photography. The show opens October 8th.
Interestingly, Shaft was released the year before LIFE — the magazine that had been the bedrock of American news, celebrity, and culture for more than 30 years — was shuttered; perhaps, on some level, Parks sensed that one dominant form of storytelling was giving way to another. Here, a look at six pictures from the show and how they demonstrate Parks’ cinematic vision as well as his lasting influence.
On November 1, 1948, the first story Parks ever shot for LIFE — an intimate look at the days of a Red Jackson, a teenage gang leader in Harlem — landed on America’s newsstands and kitchen tables. The photo essay's accompanying text refers to the then-36-year-old Parks as “a young Negro photographer” who won the gang leader’s confidence “and then stuck with him for four hectic weeks to make a chronicle of Red’s unhappy life.” While the pictures Parks shot during his previous years with the legendary Farm Security Administration were riveting documentary pictures, something had begun to evolve in Parks’ approach to storytelling. “The image of Red at the window is a combination of mystery and humanity and beauty all in one quick image,” says Alicia Colen, the gallery’s longtime associate director. “It's this beautiful, beautiful young man gazing out of a cracked window. But at first glance,” she says, “you have no idea that he's a gang leader or why the window is cracked.” Here, Parks isn’t telling us the story in a single picture; instead, like a film director aware of the scenes to follow, he’s parceling out the information, aware that the next image will help complete the picture as he builds a world for us. Another gorgeous (and equally ambiguous) image from the same shoot shows a teen in a spotless fedora, kneeling with a brick in his hand. Is he building? Repairing? Only the text reveals that his gang is under siege; the brick is ammunition should the approaching rivals discover his hiding spot.
Lights, Camera, Action
In this 1967 image of a chaotic yet balletic moment in Harlem, Parks gives us a moody scene of young men at night. The picture, heavy on the visual poetry but light on the kind of information favored by photojournalists at the time, “isn’t normally how you would shoot a documentary photograph,” says Colen. “You're not seeing the look on their faces. You're not seeing who they're being chased by.” The picture is more about the ghostly light filtering through these bodies, the bright highlights on the edges of their clothing, the sense of motion, those ominous shadows. In a film, of course, all of the information isn’t served up in a single frame; the angle changes, the light shifts, the visual perspective switches — all of which can build multiple narratives for the viewer. “I don't know if this is Gordon's influence on filmmaking or filmmaking's influence on Gordon,” says Colen. “But he’s thinking in a different way here, one with a little more drama and more room for interpretation. He’s thinking like a filmmaker.”
Was there a moment in his long, extraordinary career when Parks’ approach became conspicuously cinematic? Peter Kunhardt, Jr., the Executive Director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, points to the landmark 1957 assignment Parks shot for LIFE called “The Atmosphere of Crime,” for which the image above — a drug suspect being frisked in Chicago — was made. Parks spent six twitchy weeks photographing high-crime areas in four of the country’s biggest cities. The resulting story was groundbreaking on many levels: not only did Parks bring back the first crime story ever to be shot in color, but his nuanced images of communities and police — and the tripwire relationship between the two — brilliantly destabilized readers’ idea of what “crime” looks like.
Beyond that, what Parks saw as he rode in police cars, shimmied up fire escapes, and witnessed all manner of violence — and, crucially, how he saw it — informed his vision for Shaft. Sometimes in a very direct way: one of Parks’ photos shows two white Chicago detectives in a gritty tenement hallway kicking down the door of a Black resident’s apartment. Fourteen years later, the same shot appears in the film, except now Parks has the Black detective John Shaft kicking down the door. With Shaft, says Kunhardt, “Gordon did one of the things he specialized in at LIFE, which was to tell Black stories that featured Black protagonists to mainstream audiences. He made Shaft for Black mainstream audiences, but he knew how to do it through the lens of the white audience, too.” Of course, the other thing Parks did with Shaft was to kick down Hollywood’s door for future Black filmmakers.
While Shaft is certainly Parks’ most celebrated film, it wasn’t his first. Two years earlier, he wrote and directed The Learning Tree, which was based on his semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. This photo, taken on a street in Harlem, predates The Learning Tree by nearly two decades. Here, Parks goes big on the sky, leaving the viewer with only slight visual references to where the action is taking place. And while everyone in the frame is staring at something, Parks gives us no sense of what that might be. “It's a photograph where you can sort of feel a motion picture camera sweeping by these subjects,” says Colen. What does it take to use a still camera like a film camera? “I think it just takes a different kind of brain, a different kind of creativity, a different kind of aesthetic, a different kind of approach,” says Colen. “I think this approach just happens to be Gordon's.”
In describing this unexpected and rather voyeuristic picture — yet another from 1957’s The Atmosphere of Crime photo essay — Kunhardt says that “You can sense that Gordon’s telling a story and that he's telling it very much like the way a filmmaker would, shooting out of car windows, looking down from rooftops, through panes of glass.” And, indeed, Shaft’s opening sequence is a top-down shot, from a similar height and similar angle, of the detective threading his way through New York traffic. Parks, of course, also shot lush fashion spreads for Vogue, and you can see his attention to color in the matching blues of the cops, suspect, and car. “The colors,” says Colen, “feel so choreographed. I mean, it's a documentary photograph that's been art directed by life. But his camera angle is interesting too. If this were a film, I think the next image would be taken through the back windshield of the car ahead of them as they walked to the paddy wagon.”
Fade to Black
The 27-image exhibit at the Greenberg Gallery is titled “A Choice of Weapons,” a reference to this piercing Parks quote: "I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance and poverty". That phrase — a choice of weapons — landed as the title of Parks’ 1966 autobiography and is also the title of a new HBO documentary that examines the young creatives and activists that Parks has inspired over the decades. But in the context of this exhibit, it takes on a different shading: the choice between a still camera and a film camera, which you can sense Parks playing within this image of Red Jackson, the young Harlem gang leader. “I've never seen a photograph quite like this before in the body of a documentary still project,” says Colen. “It doesn't feel like it's designed to tell you what just happened or what happens next. It feels like it was made to wrap up a story, as an endnote.” It’s the kind of picture, taken from so close to the street, that you can almost hear Red’s shoes clacking on the pavement, that you can almost see the credits roll as our hero makes his way into the sunset.
By Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former Editor-in-Chief of LIFE magazine; on Instagram, he’s @Billshapiro
“Gordon Parks: A Choice of Weapons” is showing at the Howard Greenberg Gallery, 41 East 57 Street, 8th floor, in New York; it runs from October 8 through December 23, 2021.