Gordon Parks. Harlem Rally. 1963. Gelatin silver print, 13 3/16 × 19 1/16" (33.5 × 48.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist in honor of Edward Steichen. © 2020 Gordon Parks Foundation

Gordon Parks: Seeing Color in Black and White

The groundbreaking photographer compels us to look beyond easy categories.
Sarah Meister Jul 14, 2020
Gordon Parks. Children with Doll, Washington, D.C. 1942

Gordon Parks. Children with Doll, Washington, D.C. 1942

A black-and-white photograph is rarely black or white—the vast majority of the images we describe using these words are built using countless shades of gray. Gordon Parks understood how to deploy nuance as an aesthetic strategy and, even more importantly, as a method of grappling with the complexities of Blackness in a white-dominated world. This finely tuned balance of artistic confidence and political conviction is the hallmark of Parks’s work in the pages of Life magazine—in black and white, and in color—where, for more than a quarter-century, he contributed photo essays that challenged stereotypes, and articles that provided much-needed insight into a Black man’s perspective for the magazine’s mostly white readers.

Parks was awarded a prestigious Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942, only a few years after acquiring his first camera. He moved to Washington, DC, where he became one of the few Black photographers to work for Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration. The work helped him to fine-tune his photographic skills and learn to harness the power of a camera—his self-described “weapon of choice”—to combat the inequality and injustice he found all around him. In his photograph Man with Straw Hat, Washington, D.C., Parks may have recognized himself in the smartly dressed figure on a street corner, the upward tilt of his camera conferring upon the stranger a heroic air. He also learned to build the trust of his subjects, earning the privilege of photographing intimate moments at their homes. After World War II, he took advantage of the wide circulation of popular magazines, which were read by an extraordinary proportion of American households, to draw attention to these issues (and to earn a living), working for Ebony, Fortune, Glamour, Vogue, and Life.

Gordon Parks. Man with Straw Hat, Washington, D.C. 1942

Gordon Parks. Man with Straw Hat, Washington, D.C. 1942

Parks was hired as the first Black staff photographer for Life in February 1949: his first photo essay for the magazine, “Harlem Gang Leader,” had appeared the previous November. Parks sought to draw attention to the impact of poverty and discrimination on this New York neighborhood, and encourage programs to help its young residents: to his dismay, the editors of Life opted for a more sensational narrative, privileging images that reinforced stereotypes of lawlessness and violence. His portrait of Red Jackson captures the story’s protagonist in a tense, pensive moment, surveying a rival gang on the street through a dirty, broken window. In another image from the same story, Harlem Gang Wars, Parks challenges assumptions by creating an intentionally ambiguous image. He understood that a professional assignment could also function as art, and that these bodies in motion—exquisitely drawn within the receding perspectives of the surrounding buildings, a bare arm silhouetted in an otherwise uninterrupted void—evoke grace as much as aggression.

That same year, Parks collaborated with author Ralph Ellison on “Harlem Is Nowhere,” a story for a magazine called 48, which folded before it could be published. This personal connection laid the foundation for an article that would appear in 1952, accompanying the publication of Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. Emerging Man, Harlem, New York, is a variant of that story’s lead image, a reenactment of a fictional scene made more real through Parks’s camera.

Gordon Parks. Red Jackson, Harlem Gang Leader. 1948

Gordon Parks. Red Jackson, Harlem Gang Leader. 1948

Gordon Parks. Emerging Man, Harlem, New York. 1952

Gordon Parks. Emerging Man, Harlem, New York. 1952

On May 31, 1963, the Editors’ Note in Life included a quotation from Parks: “I have some kind of innate capability to turn the violence and bitterness inside me into work.” This issue contained a rare look into the Black Muslim movement, photographed by Parks, including this image from a rally in Harlem (its caption described Congressman Adam Clayton Powell [second from left], “pay[ing] court to Malcolm X at Harlem street rally.”). In addition to the lead story, Parks also photographed and wrote an accompanying article, “‘What Their Cry Means to Me’—A Negro’s Own Evaluation” that traced through words and pictures his respect for those with whom he disagreed as well as his attentiveness to the nuances of their arguments. He concluded: “I wouldn’t follow Elijah Muhammad or Malcolm X into a Black State—even if they achieve such a complete separation. I’ve worked too hard for a place in this present society. Furthermore, such a hostile frontier would only bristle even more with hatred and potential violence. Nor will I condemn all whites for the violent acts of their brothers against the Negro people. Not just yet, anyway.” One can only speculate how Parks would respond to our current moment, but his introduction to a 16-page article in the March 8, 1968, issue of Life offers an insight:

“What I want, what I am, what you force me to be, is what you are, for I am you, staring back from a mirror of poverty and despair, of revolt and freedom. Look at me and know that to destroy me is to destroy yourself. You are weary of the long hot summer. I am tired of the long hungered winters. We are not so far apart as it might seem. There is something about both of us that goes deeper than blood or black and white. It is our common search for a better life, a better world. I march now over the same ground you once marched. I fight for the same things you still fight for. My children’s needs are the same as your children’s. I too am America. America is me. It gave me the only life I know—so I must share in its survival. Look at me. Listen to me. Try to understand my struggle against your racism. There is yet a chance for us to live in peace beneath these restless skies.”

Gordon Parks. Harlem Rally. 1963

Gordon Parks. Harlem Rally. 1963

My children’s needs are the same as your children’s. I too am America. America is me.
Gordon Parks

Just over a month later, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Parks again directly addressed Life’s readers: “[Dr. King] protested the way American whites preferred that he protest—nonviolently. He spent the last dozen years of his life preaching love to men of all colors. And for all this, a man, white like you, blasted a bullet through his neck. And in doing so the madman has just about eliminated the last symbol of peace between us. We must struggle to distinguish between his act and your conscience…. Believe this, no matter what anyone else tells you: you have pushed us to the precipice. Of course we don’t blame you all literally, but we cannot control what is deep in our hearts. The thousands of blacks killed between 1868 and 1968 for just trying to vote, the slayings of little Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, the three civil rights workers Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, and now Martin Luther King, have not endeared our hearts to you. Too many of us are still unaccounted for in the terror-ridden swamp lands of the South.” Replace these names with those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbury, and others, and this might have been written last week.

I find it striking that despite this justifiable anger and frustration, Parks opts to conclude this article with a more conciliatory message: “Now that he lies dead from a lower law, we begin to wonder if love is enough. Racism still engulfs us. The fires still smoulder and the extremists, black and white, are buying the guns. Everywhere—Army troops stand ready. Our President is warned against going to Atlanta. America is indeed in a state of shock. The white man, stricken, must stay firm in his conscience, and the black man must see that he does. If the death of this great man does not unite us, we are committing ourselves to suicide. If his lessons are not absorbed by the whites, by Congress, by my black brothers, by any who would use violence to dishonor his memory, that “dream” he had could vanish into a nightmare. You and I can fulfill his dream by observing his higher law of nonviolence to the echo of his drumbeat. To my black brothers, I say, remember his words: ‘Protest courageously, with dignity and Christian love. History will then say there lived a great people—a black people—who injected new meaning into the veins of civilization. This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.’” Parks’s generosity, in words and pictures, is one of the defining characteristics of his work. As Bryan Stevenson recently observed, the respect he commanded from the editors at Life allowed him to present a nonwhite perspective in the pages of a decidedly white magazine.

Gordon Parks. Harlem Gang Wars. 1948

Gordon Parks. Harlem Gang Wars. 1948

Spread from “The Atmosphere of Crime,” Life, September 9, 1957

Spread from “The Atmosphere of Crime,” Life, September 9, 1957

Of the many stories Parks completed for Life, few were shot exclusively in color. Other than a handful of fashion articles, the first, “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” appeared on September 24, 1956, as part of a series that examined the shameful blight of Segregation; the second, “The Atmosphere of Crime,” was published on September 9, 1957, the first of a series of articles on crime in the US. The editors’ decision to present these stories in color was one signal of their topic’s importance. The editors’ decision to trust Parks with these assignments was a signal of their confidence in his ability, and, perhaps, their appreciation that telling these stories from a Black perspective was an essential element of their success (although such a justification is absent from internal memoranda).

In late 2019, MoMA purchased a suite of more than 50 images from the Gordon Parks Foundation of “The Atmosphere of Crime”—all of the plates from a new book of the same title—in recognition of the photo essay’s importance. The series provides a historical reference against which we can assess representations of crime or criminality—made before or since. The blistering specificity of Parks’s descriptions of police work, and the almost romantic renderings of street corners on which criminal activity was anticipated but not seen, demand that viewers, then and now, look closely and critically at what we define as policing, and question the clarity of our assumptions. The acquisition of modern color prints from this series complemented a large-scale early gelatin silver print that Parks gave the Museum in 1993 in honor of Edward Steichen, director of MoMA’s Department of Photography from 1947 to 1962.

No matter the method he used, Parks compels us to look beyond binaries of black and white, the building blocks of his artistic vocabulary. For Parks there were only no gray areas when it came to right and wrong—he fought tirelessly for equality and justice.

Gordon Parks. Untitled, Chicago, Illnois. 1957

Gordon Parks. Untitled, Chicago, Illnois. 1957

Gordon Parks. Raiding Detectives, Chicago, Illinois. 1957

Gordon Parks. Raiding Detectives, Chicago, Illinois. 1957