Gordon Parks’s photography of a “Harlem Gang Leader”

In 1948, Gordon Parks’s photography of a Harlem gang involved getting its dangerous members to trust him, so that he could spend time shooting them and talking to them about what life was like as a “Midtowner.” In marking a forthcoming remake of Shaft, Maurice Berger at the New York Times reports that Parks hoped to “challenge how mainstream media portrayed African-Americans and crime.” Parks’s “concept differed considerably from his editors.” From Berger:

In his first photo essay for Life magazine, “Harlem Gang Leader,” published in 1948, Mr. Parks attempted to challenge how mainstream media portrayed African-Americans and crime. He documented the daily life of 17-year-old Leonard “Red” Jackson, leader of the Midtowners, a Harlem gang. Mr. Parks gained his trust, becoming a “welcome companion in all of [his] activities, including diplomatic sessions with other gangs, fights, quiet moments at home, even a visit to a funeral chapel to examine the wounds of a deceased member of a friendly gang.”

Mr. Parks hoped the story would encourage support for social programs to help at-risk youth. But the range of images he took for the story, in contrast to those that editors selected, suggest that his concept differed considerably from his editors. In its published version — where photos were selected for dramatic effect and some aggressively cropped — the photo-essay failed to portray the teenager’s studiousness and stable family life. Harlem’s vitality and cultural richness were also missing, being represented instead as foreboding and desolate.

Gordon Parks photography harlem

Although the photographer was pleased with the results, it’s unlikely that Parks’s “Harlem Gang Leader” photo essay “fulfilled the hopes that Parks brought to the project,” wrote John Edwin Mason for a 2014 piece in Time magazine. Read the rest of the NYT story, which notes that Shaft—with a remake forthcoming—wasn’t “the first time he portrayed the urban underworld through his measured lens.”

Image via The Gordon Parks Foundation. Through July 19th, see Gordon Parks: Selections from the Dean Collection at Ethelbert Cooper Gallery at Harvard University in Boston.