Gordon Parks is one of the most influential photographers and artists of his time and his past work still has an abundant impact on today. Gordon Parks was born on November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas. Parks was thought to be a “self-taught” artist who eventually became the first ever African-American photographer for the magazines Life and Vogue. In parks early stages of his life, he had it pretty rough. A quote from Parks states, “I was born to a black childhood of confusion and poverty. The memory of that beginning influences my work today, it is impossible now to photograph a hungry child without remembering the hunger of my old childhood” Parks stared discrimination right in the face as a child. At that time, because of his race, he was not allowed to participate in activities in his segregated elementary and high school.
This was not the end of Parks suffering as a child. At only the age of fourteen, Parks mother had died and he then sought out relatives to stay with until starting off on his own. Moving further along his educational road; teachers at this time were not afraid to discourage African-American students from trying to obtain higher education. Even though parks did not necessarily continue his formal education, he did continue to educate himself deeper into his field of photography and filmmaking. As far as photography goes, Parks had a very distinct and unique style. While working for Vogue for a number of years, his style consisted of “…emphasizing the look of models and garments in motion, rather than in static poses…”(“Gordon Parks Biography”) His work in photography transitioned into trying to further expose discrimination and he continued to do so till the day of his death due to cancer. Once again, Gordon Parks is by far was of the most influential people of his time and one work that stands out the most is Parks Photo essay “Harlem Gang Leader”
“Harlem Gang Leader” was published in LIFE magazine in it’s Nov. 1, 1948 issue. Parks had said that he spent four hectic weeks exploring the world of Red Jackson, a seventeen-year-old that led a gang in Harlem called the Midtowners. It is known that this photo essay was considered to be the pinnacle of his work and one thing that parks said about this was “I picked up the camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty.” In the midst of this essay, a photo titled Red Jackson was quite intriguing.
At first glance, Red Jackson looks very similar to the other works done by Gordon Parks at this time. In this collection, Parks had maintained just black and white images with African-American figures. He had little to no commentary on what they symbolized individually but did have something to say about the collection as a whole. His deeper intent of this collection was to have society during that time to give the pictures their own meaning and let them decide what they meant. Initially, what we see in the photo is an African-American looking intently towards the other side of the street. The building the individual is in appears to be broken down and dilapidated while the buildings across the street look very structured and well kept. This represents the impenetrable bridge between blacks and whites. Even though slavery was abolished and many laws were put in place to make the world more “just”, American discrimination was still alive and well. This part of the photo also portrays the idea that as an African-American, it is very hard and almost impossible to cross that “bridge” to get past discrimination.
In Red Jackson, the photo is taken during what seems to be mid-day. There is natural light coming in through a broken glass window and it appears that there is not an abundance of people walking the streets because they are most likely at work. This portion of the photo further embodies the idea that discrimination was very present at the time. This also shows that discrimination went way beyond the classroom. When it came to finding a job, African-Americans were at a huge disadvantage. No matter how fit for the job they were the only thing holding them back was simply the color of their skin.
When analyzing the photo deeper, you notice that he is wearing rags. This is a very modest but powerful detail in the image. During the time this photo was taken, the fashion industry was taking off for the upper class and middle to low-income families had access to quality, inexpensive clothing. “The photo was the first to look closely and soberly at the reality of life in Harlem at mid-century, and, in that respect, anticipates the more strident civil rights exposés by Parks and other photojournalists in the 1960s.” (The MET) This exhibits that African-Americans specifically were seen to be unequal compared to any white person no matter what their economic class was.
Smoking during this time was very popular and in some instances, it was even encouraged! In today’s society, you can’t have a commercial or advertisement with tobacco without stating the harmful effects on your health. Back then, there were no such regulations and laws and at times, medical professionals sometimes suggested smoking to their patients! In the photo, you can observe that he has a cigarette in his mouth. As stated before, this would be seen as very normal but this shows that African-Americans during this time would do anything in their power to be accepted in society. The cigarette represents that no matter what laws were put into place, there would always be an addiction to fighting for equality.
The use of shadow in the photo is very peculiar. You can see an obvious change of light from the right side of the photo transitioning to the left. The majority of the shadows are on the left side. These shadows prevent the audience from seeing any of the contents of the building that the individual is standing in. Although we can assume that he does not have very much money, the lack of material possessions seen in the photo tells the viewer that there is a very evident emptiness within many African-Americans during this time. There is more darkness in the photo then there is light. The darkness corresponds to the amount of unjustness there was and the light acts as a symbol of the slight bursts of hope there was in the minds of African-Americans not being treated equally.
The last detail that stands alone compared to the rest is that the person in the photo know as “Red Jackson” is supposed to be only seventeen years old. At first glance, the audience would assume that he is much older than seventeen and this is very important. The reason that he looks much older than what he should is that the world around him made him grow up. The countless hours of intimidation and ridicule made him go beyond his years and he needed to become more of an adult to fend for himself. This shows that the attitude towards African-Americans was much more than negative and that society made them progress towards adulthood much faster to only get by at the bare minimum.
Once again, Gordon Parks stands alone when talking about putting others lives before your own. His lifes work was dedicated to the fair treatment of all people no matter their skin color. Parks had a real connection to peace and justice. You can see this in his works. It is obvious that Parks has very negative views towards discrimination but when you think of discrimination activists, you would tend to think of seeing riots, parades, and violence; but Parks images show the suttle and nonviolent side to discrimination and this was very powerful. His influence is still seen today in many artists works and his spot in paving the way towards a more equal future.