Posted by Genevieve Fussell | The New Yorker
On November 1, 1948, Life magazine published the photo essay "Harlem Gang Leader," introducing their readers to the photography of Gordon Parks and to his subject, the seventeen-year-old Leonard (Red) Jackson, leader of the Harlem gang the Midtowners. "Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument," a recently released book and concurrent exhibition presented by The Gordon Parks Foundation and the New Orleans Museum of Art, is a critical examination of this assignment, after which Parks became Life's first African-American staff photographer.
"The Making of an Argument" evaluates the editorial decisions made by the magazine and, in doing so, comments on how the context in which a picture is presented can drastically alter its message. "In order to meet the expectations set up by the subtitle and the opening text, an overwhelming majority of the pictures selected underscore violence, fear, frustration, aggression, or despair. Of the twenty-one images reproduced, only five strike a lighter note," writes Russell Lord, the curator of photographs at NOMA. Lord also notes that the ways the images were cropped and darkened further functioned to convey the magazine's intended message.
Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., the executive director of The Gordon Parks Foundation, adds, "This project digs deep in the Foundation's archive of contact sheets and unpublished prints ... and offers a behind-the-scenes look at Life's editorial process and Parks' unparalleled ability to connect with his subjects on a personal level." This connection is especially apparent in the frames that Life did not publish, which paint a much fuller and, in some respects, more positive picture of Jackson's life.
"At each step of the selection process-as Parks chose each shot, or as the picture editors chose from his selection-any intended narrative was complicated by another editorial voice," writes Lord. "When readers opened the pages of the magazine, the addition of text, and the readers' own biases, further rendered the original argument into a fractured, multilayered affair. The process raises questions: What was the intended argument? And whose argument was it?"
"Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument," co-published by Steidl, The Gordon Parks Foundation, and the New Orleans Museum of Art, is available from Steidl and is on view at NOMA through January 19, 2014.
All photographs by Gordon Parks. Courtesy and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.