Gordon Parks at Lehman Loeb

"Gang Member with Brick" by Gordon Parks

Oct 28: “The Making of an Argument,” an exhibition of photographs by Gordon Parks, the first African American to work for Life Magazine, can be seen at Vassar’s Lehman Loeb Art Center until December 13. The images were taken on assignment for Life during the month Parks spent in Harlem in 1948 with a teenaged gang and their leader Leonard “Red” Jackson. The resulting photo essay “Harlem Gang Leader,” halped to make Parks one of the premier documentary photographers of his time.

However, Parks viewed the final results with mixed feelings. By portraying the conditions in African-American communities that fostered delinquency and teen gangs he had hoped to inspire government and social services agencies to work to better the situation. Although he recognized the violence that was part of Jackson’s life, he felt the magazine’s editors put too much emphasis on that aspect of his life and thereby created a one dimensional story.

1237 "Untitled" by Gordon Parks

It is this dichotomy that makes this exhibition so interesting. Comprised of not only 45 prints but the contact sheets and the actual pages from the magazine, the exhibition shows how the story was really shaped by the decisions of the editors. The contact sheets reveal that many of Parks’ photographs were of peaceful moments in the lives of the gang members – boys playing in the spray from a fire hydrant on a hot summer day, Jackson’s brother reading for example. However, the editors chose those images that emphasized the conflict inherent in gang life. They also cropped or otherwise manipulated the photographs to heighten the feeling of menace. 

1238 "Untitled" by Gordon Parks

Taken as a whole the exhibition itself gives perhaps a more balanced view of the lives of young African Americans in the Harlem of almost 70 years ago. But the underlying sense of threat is palpable – as it remains today.