Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument, a pathbreaking exhibition that originated at the New Orleans Museum of Art, explores the 1948 Life magazine photo-essay that introduced one of the 20th century's most important photographers, filmmakers, and writers to the American public. Gordon Parks' photographs and the magazine's text, which relied heavily on his reporting, propelled readers into the world of Red Jackson, a seventeen-year-old "Harlem Gang Leader." Parks spent a month with Jackson and his gang, the Midtowners, while working on the story. Having gained the young men's trust, he was able to make photographs that possessed the fly-on-the-wall intimacy and dramatic urgency of film noir.
"Harlem Gang Leader" was Parks' first major photo-essay for Life, and the response from all quarters was overwhelmingly positive. Wilson Hicks, the magazine's photo editor, even offered him a job, making Parks the first (and, for twenty years, only) African-American photographer on the staff of a major American magazine or newspaper.
Despite this success, the essay troubled Parks. While Jackson's world did contain more than its share of "fear, frustration, and violence," the emphasis that the magazine's editors placed on these aspects of his life created a onesided story. Yet Parks acknowledged that without the frisson of violence, Life might never have published the essay.
Parks' frustration was rooted in the tension between his hopes for the essay and the final product. He had long desired to produce a photo-essay on African-American teenage gangs that would illustrate the conditions that fostered delinquency and encourage government and social service agencies to intervene. Life offered him the platform that he desired, but it came with a price, when he had to cede control of the essay to the magazine's editors.
Thanks to loans from The Gordon Parks Foundation, this exhibition brings together scores of published and unpublished photographs, contact sheets, proof prints, and original copies of Life to examine the way in which editorial decisions altered Parks' original vision. The result is a close study of the way Parks' brilliant, but tarnished, debut was conceived, constructed, and received.
Read John Mason's essay (pdf) about the background of Parks's "Harlem Gang Leader."
The Fralin Museum of Art's programming is made possible by the generous support of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.
The exhibition is also made possible by the Buckner W. Clay Endowment for the Humanities, Arts$, the Office of the Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity, the Corcoran Department of History, the Office of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, American Studies Program at the University of Virginia, The Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, WTJU 91.1 FM, albemarle Magazine, and Ivy Publications LLC's Charlottesville Welcome Book. The exhibition is organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art, and items in the exhibition have been made available through the generosity of The Gordon Parks Foundation.