Series Editor: Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr.
Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957
(Steidl and the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2020)
In the summer of 1957, Gordon Parks toured four cities over six weeks, stopping in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Sometimes alone and sometimes with local police, he set out to document crime for Life magazine’s issue “Crime in the US.” He called it “a journey through hell,” and there is something hellish about the pictures, not just in what they depict, but in the quality of the images, teeming with a sweltering atmosphere. Many of the photographs resemble film noir, with velvety shadows, canted perspectives, and silhouetted figures peeking around corners. Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957, co-published by Steidl and the Gordon Parks Foundation, reproduces more than 50 of the approximately 300 photographs that Parks took during his assignment. These images are part of a recent acquisition of prints by the Museum of Modern Art from the Gordon Parks Foundation, which were scheduled to go on view in May 2020 before the museum’s closure in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike his previous work, the series was shot in color, giving each image an air of gritty modernity. Amid current protests for the overhaul of policing practices in the US, the book presents new scholarship on the representation of criminality in America after the Civil War. It brings Parks’s photo essay, “The Atmosphere of Crime,” together with essays by the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson; art historian Nicole R. Fleetwood, and MoMA curator Sarah Hermanson Meister.
How we define crime, as Stevenson examines in his essay, is connected to systems of power. The myth that criminal behavior is linked to race, poverty, immigration, and urban life is one that has long been fed by the desire to undermine the autonomy and upward mobility of marginalized groups. What Parks understood is that there is crime and there are criminals, a distinction illustrated in this series through thoughtfully framed images. The photographs that show individuals being arrested or committing crimes rarely expose their faces. It’s a break away from the genre of criminal portraiture that has been used to correlate physical appearance with unlawful behavior. Parks instead revealed both the humanity of those who have been convicted of crimes, but also how race and class determine the extent to which criminals are prosecuted.
Only 12 of the photographs he took on his six-week assignment made it into the magazine, inharmoniously printed alongside advertisements for pain relievers, life insurance, girdles, and beer. The last section of the book reproduces the issue in full. The glossy pages almost recreate the feeling of flipping through a magazine. Writer Robert Wallace was asked by Life to accompany Parks on his assignment, and presented his own interpretation of the experience in the magazine’s feature article. He offered a stereotypical account of criminality in the US, Stevenson observes, one that was “not interested in reckoning with pervasive racially motivated criminality.” The photographs that the editors included—and excluded—are fairly telling. The only faces we see are those of white police officers, while those being arrested or interrogated appear shadowy and anonymous. Based on a viewer’s biased assumptions, they may assume the dark figures are people of color, but Parks photographed white criminals and Black cops as well; one image shows a Black detective smoking a cigarette while checking for track marks on a young white man’s arm. One spread features photos from Chicago: on the left Raiding Detectives,Chicago, Illinois, captures two white officers in a narrow hallway kicking down a door, guns in-hand. The magazine’s caption (written by Robert Wallace rather than the artist) reads: “Guns drawn, Chicago detectives break in the door of a suspicious room. Surprise means safety. A quick kick follows a perfunctory knock.” Between the dramatic lighting and the forced perspective that makes the detectives seem larger than life, there is a thrilling energy to the shot, like a scene from a gangster movie. But kicking down a door, guns blazing only works in fiction; in reality, the no-knock policy has long been a source of contention, intensified by the shooting of Breonna Taylor by officers of the Louisville police in March 2020.
The outtakes of the series tell a more nuanced story. Parks shows his subjects not in order to judge them, but rather to understand them. His images of drug addicts, as Fleetwood writes, are particularly captivating. In a sequence of intimate untitled photographs taken in Chicago, Parks shows a man in a white button-down shirt preparing and injecting a needle into his arm. The image is cropped at the chest, so we do not see the man’s face. The proximity of these images protects the anonymity of the subject. Others such as Fingerprinting Addicts for Forging Prescription, Chicago, Illinois, convey compassion for the criminalization of addiction—with their identities protected, their personhood is not defined by disease.
His photographs of San Quentin document the panoptical structure of the prison, and the contrasting ways in which inmates and officers navigate the space. In one image, a lone guard stands on a platform observing towering cellblocks. On the other side of the image, incarcerated men stand along corridors outside their cells. There’s a clear division here between “us” and “them,” the seer and the seen. As Fleetwood notes, it doesn’t seem that much has changed in this dichotomy as policing tactics and prison complexes have become increasingly brutal and inhumane. But these images also elicit an unsettling sense of banality in police work. Whether they’re locking away suspects or doing paperwork, the officers seem listless, a disturbing reminder and subtle critique of the complacency in law enforcement still prevalent today.
“The Atmosphere of Crime” wasn’t the artist’s only crime-related series, but Parks didn’t consider himself an expert on the matter, as Sarah Hermanson Meister notes in her essay. Decades after the photo series was produced, Parks remembered: “With the publication of that essay came invitations to speak before groups concerned with the problems of crime and ways to fight them. Against a mature judgment I accepted a few. But I had no reassuring answers; I too was begging the questions, eating the same despair.”
There is no question that the book is relevant today amid far-reaching conversations on policing in America. But to say that this book is prescient or timely is ultimately reductive—labeling it so merely reflects the white gaze. As the essays elucidate, the problems of crime and over-policing in disenfranchised communities have existed for centuries. For some, it may be easy to ignore the reality of these images, to sit behind the layer of gloss that separates the unnerving subject matter from the reader. But for others (especially for “others”), it never escapes our daily consciousness.