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In 1957, Life magazine announced a six-part series of issues called Crime in the US, which highlighted the state of the American justice system following the end of World War II. It was published at a time of monumental cultural shifts across the nation, as well as stark political, racial, and economic divides. The end of the 1950s also saw increased anxiety among white populations who were fearful that changing demographics in their communities would lead to higher crime rates, while at the same time many Black people were equally fearful of racially motivated violence and brutality inflicted by the very police sworn to protect them.
Life magazine enlisted the help of Gordon Parks, the first Black staff photographer in the magazine's history, to accompany police on the streets of New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The results were published as a striking, full-color photo essay titled The Atmosphere of Crime, which offered groundbreaking insight into the era's methods of policing. Most notably, the manner in which Parks approached his subjects set a new standard for crime scene photojournalism — presumed criminals were documented with an obvious sense of anonymity to protect their innocence until proven guilty, while police officers were captured with striking clarity to crystalize their identities and tactics.
Before the coronavirus pandemic had shuttered museums across the country, the Museum of Modern Art had planned a retrospective of this seminal photo essay to be displayed alongside selections from the museum's collection that explore themes of justice and race in the US. You still can view this work in its entirety from their comfort of your home in Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957, a new book produced by the Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with the Gordon Parks Foundation. Edited by Sarah Meister, curator at the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Photography, the book brings together the entire body of work, alongside unseen images and critical essays on the era.
Here, Meister speaks with BuzzFeed News about the historical significance of this 1957 photo essay and why it's more important than ever to revisit Parks’ work.
For those unfamiliar with this body of work, who exactly was Gordon Parks?
Gordon Parks was a leading photographer of the 20th century. He also happened to be the first Black staff photographer for Life magazine and he used that platform to draw attention to the issues he felt he could illuminate effectively using what he’d describe as his “weapon of choice” — his camera.
In a nutshell, he was a very talented photographer who managed to balance the demands of being a staff photographer for Life magazine with a very personal and passionately held vision, coupled with his finely tuned aesthetic sense. All of those things combined led to his success.
How does Parks approach the subject of policing in The Atmosphere of Crime? How does his perspective differ from other photographers, such as Weegee, who are known for documenting crime?
The history of photography and criminality up to this point largely focused on identifying the criminal and using the indexicality of photography. There was an insatiable interest in picturing criminals and pinning them down with photographic specificity. What I really appreciate about what Parks did with this photo story is that he resisted this.
When you have any opportunity to look at any of the photographs from this series, you’re immediately struck that by using blur, using natural light rather than flash, and by utilizing strong camera angles, he really managed to preserve a sense of privacy and anonymity for those accused of crimes. This gesture of respect calls into question whether the circumstance that you’re seeing is actually such a criminal one.
The flip side to that is that Parks was incredibly specific about the ways in which he looked at the activities of the police and detectives. Most of his images documenting police are captured with a flash, rendering identifiable faces and figures. These are stop-action images that really crystallized for viewers what the detectives and what the police force were doing.
Again, thinking about this work through today’s lens, I’m offered more tools to be critical about what policing means. I also have more ambiguity and a sense of uncertainty of why certain people are being policed or harassed. Obviously, Parks was responding to his own moment, but these are two examples of lessons that I think make it important to put forward this work today.
In 1957, most photographers were shooting in black-and-white film — what can you read into Parks’ use of color photography here?
A very plain fact from the time is that color photography represented an investment as it was more expensive than black-and-white photography. So Life magazine’s commitment to having this story be in full color and their trust in Gordon Parks to use this tool effectively were expressions both of their appreciation in the importance of the subject and their confidence in Parks as a photographer. They recognized immediately how important this initial color photo story could be, specifically in color.
How does the Museum of Modern Art fit into the picture here?
MoMA purchased the plates from this photo story in its entirety and with that acquisition, we have a very dynamic rotation of work from the museum collection that we put on view at any given time. My colleagues across the museum are equally interested in this work, both as a way of understanding Parks through this particular photo story, but also more broadly in thinking through how the history of crime and criminality is represented in the museum collection.
This fall, we hope to open an installation of this work in the museum that will be anchored by this 1957 photo story and set against 19th- and early 20th-century representations of crime and criminality to help our viewers understand and appreciate just how distinctive and important Parks’ achievement was. I would say with great humility that we are doing our best to honor this work to provide thoughtful context for the work both artistically and intellectually. We’ve attempted to bring this work forward in a way that brings nuance and depth to the understanding of the history of policing and criminality and the “atmosphere of crime” in the US. I don’t believe that we’re uniquely qualified to do this, but I will say that we are keen to be a place where these conversations can happen and that we’re fortunate to have such a wide audience.
Why do you believe it is important to revisit this body of work at this particular moment in US history?
I think Gordon Parks remains as relevant as he’s ever been. One of the saddest lessons of our contemporary moment is our inability to learn from the recent past, let alone the 1950s and earlier. The tragic events surrounding George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are just the most recent in a long history of systemic racism and police brutality in the US. We have to recommit to looking carefully at the lessons of the past, because the lessons are there if we look at it.
Art and photography play an important role in this and when someone who is as talented as Gordon Parks turns his camera to a subject that is so relevant to our contemporary moment, then the work carries a capacity to help make people look longer. That’s what great art does. I can only hope that the opportunity to look at this work can help further and foster people’s specific senses of what has happened historically and the ways in which it continues to happen today.