When Crime Photography Started to See ColorBreaking News
tags: racism, crime, photography, urban history
Photography: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957, by Gordon Parks, published by Steidl
In 1957, Life magazine sent one of its star photographers on a sprawling assignment: six weeks in four of America’s biggest cities to capture scenes of urban crime. The photographer was Gordon Parks, for 20 years the only black photographer on Life’s staff, and he later described the assignment like this: “I rode with detectives through shadowy districts, climbed fire escapes, broke through windows and doors with them. Brutality was rampant. Violent death showed up from dawn to dawn.”
The story, titled “The Atmosphere of Crime,” was both prescient and incisive, the text that accompanied it a systematic dismantling of the dubious statistics that fueled white Americans’ growing sense that an immense crime wave was upon them. And Parks’s pictures? Cinematic, intense, and exquisitely composed, they did nothing less than revolutionize what a “crime photo” could look like. But they also exposed issues that would animate mass protests years later: the trip-wire tension between race and law enforcement, the relationship between poverty and mass incarceration, the gulf between what we see and what we think we see.
Although Parks returned with more than 300 pictures, only 12 were used to illustrate the Life article. A new photography book, The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957, revisits the assignment and includes 47 outtakes from Parks’s original shoot—pictures that have never been published before. These are not only the most beautiful crime photos you have ever seen, but, quite possibly the most important.
The additional pictures—uncropped and gorgeously printed—widen our view considerably to the full story that Parks sought to tell of his six-week shoot. Along with the “new” photos, the book provides a page-by-page reproduction of the original Life story—complete with ads for Haggar slacks, Gleem toothpaste, and Ford’s new Edsel—as well as three illuminating essays, including one from Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy and a longtime advocate for judicial and prison reform. (Peter Kunhardt Jr., the executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, and the driving force behind the book, recalls that when Stevenson saw the photos for the first time, he looked up and said, “This is everything that I do and see and feel and think.”)
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