Gordon Parks’s photo essay Harlem Gang Leader sprang from the time that Parks spent following a teenaged gang leader in New York, Leonard “Red” Jackson. Its 1948 publication in Life magazine established Parks as one of the most significant social photographers of the 20th century and led to Parks becoming the first and, for 20 years, the only African-American staff member of a major American magazine or newspaper. Still, Parks was reportedly never fully comfortable with Life’s editing and presentation of his images. He felt that they had been stripped of their complexity and spun into a one-dimensional narrative of fear and violence.
Parks worked at Life for two decades, chronicling subjects related to racism and poverty, as well as taking memorable pictures of celebrities and politicians including Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael. His most famous images, such as Emerging Man (1952) and American Gothic (1942) capture the essence of activism and humanitarianism in mid-20th-century America and have become iconic images, defining their era for later generations. They also rallied support for the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, for which Parks himself was a tireless advocate as well as a documentarian.
Parks became the first African American director to helm a major motion picture, introducing the “blaxploitation” genre through his film Shaft (1971). He wrote numerous memoirs, novels and books of poetry. Parks received many awards, including the National Medal of the Arts and more than 50 honorary degrees.
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s special exhibition at Vassar College, “Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument,” takes a behind-the-scenes look at the editorial decisions leading up to the publication of this photo essay. The show opens September 25 and will be on view through December 13. For more information, visit https://fllac.vassar.edu. Vassar College is located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie.