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The atmosphere of crime, 1957

In 1957, Gordon Parks, the first African-American staff photographer at Life magazine (and at that time still the only African-American staff photographer at Life) was sent on assignment to photograph “Crime in the U.S.,” accompanying police officers on their beats and visiting locations such as prisons, hospitals, and morgues in four major U.S. cities (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles).  Over the course of six weeks he took 300 color photographs, although only twelve were eventually published in Life in its September 9, 1957 issue (and several of those were cropped).

In November 2020, New York’s Museum of Modern Art exhibited some of these photographs for the first time and a book, co-published with the Gordon Parks Foundation, was released.  This is the book which features 54 unaltered photographs, along with reproduction pages of the original Life story, as well as three contextual essays by Sarah Hermanson Meister (MoMA curator), Nicole R. Fleetwood (author and Rutgers University professor), and Bryan Stevenson (lawyer, social justice advocate, and author of Just Mercy).

Unlike many crime photographs of the time, Gordon Parks chose to take these images in color.  The results are incredibly cinematic images, filled with such gorgeous light and shadow that it’s hard to believe they were spontaneously taken and not staged, even as they often capture brutal scenes.  As noted by the book’s essay authors, Parks also often chose to give the arrestees and prisoners anonymity - photographing them from behind or in profile - while the police officers are usually on full display.  The officers seem casual, and occasionally jovial, as they hang out in a house they are searching, or as they question a handcuffed prisoner. 

Bryan Stevenson opens the book by describing a lynching that occurred in 1920 in Mulberry, Kansas, when Gordon Parks was seven years old and living just 25 miles away in Fort Scott.  Stevenson then asks, “What do we mean by ‘crime’ in America?”   In his assignment for Life, Gordon Parks focused both on a large and complex criminal justice system (from beat patrols cruising for arrests to prisons and morgues) but also on the individuals caught up in this system.

The last plate in the book is an exterior shot of San Quentin State Prison at night.  One of the few images with no people, it depicts a sight that many Northern Californians have seen every evening, but without the ability to see the individuals inside.  Parks’ photographs give viewers the ability to see the prisoners and the guards, in their despair and boredom respectively, as they make it through another day.