In 1957, Life staff photographer Gordon Parks traversed New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco capturing crime scenes, police precincts, and prisons for “The Atmosphere of Crime,” as his photo essay was titled when it appeared in the magazine. Rather than identify or label “the criminal,” Parks—a fierce advocate for civil rights and a firm believer in photography as a catalyst for change—documented the policing and criminalization of marginalized people and communities.
Here, Parks’s series is presented in relation to a long history of picturing criminality. In the nineteenth century, mug shots relied on photography’s supposed objectivity as the basis of their value for identification and surveillance. In the twentieth, more sensational images of victims, raids, and arrests circulated in newspapers and tabloids. In contrast, Parks urges us to look beyond individual people and events, to consider the forces of state and police power that are inextricable from any history of crime—a lesson as essential now as ever.