Gordon Parks and "Harlem Gang Leader"

The Gordon Parks Foundation

In 1948, Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006) became the first black photographer to be hired by Life magazine. His first photographic essay, “Harlem Gang Leader” appeared in the November 1st issue. For the project, Parks gained the trust of one particular gang and their leader, Leonard “Red” Jackson (pictured at left), and spent six weeks producing a series of pictures of them that are artful, emotive, poignant, touching, and sometimes shocking. From the hundreds of negatives Parks produced the editors at Life selected only twenty-one pictures to reproduce in the magazine, often cropping or enhancing details in the pictures. This exhibition traces what was selected, what was left out, and how the story might be different. It begins with reproductions of the original Life magazine article from 1948.

According to Gordon Parks, after the editors finished the layout of the issue, they called him in to show him the final version. To his surprise and chagrin, the editors had chosen one of his pictures, of Red Jackson holding a smoking gun, for the cover of the issue. Parks says that he fought against this decision, believing that the trust he had earned with Jackson would be violated. In the end, though, Parks would be forced to find the negative in the lab and destroy it. As a result, he lost the cover and his story ran deep inside, beginning on page 96.

When Parks shared the issue of Life magazine with Red Jackson, Jackson declared:

 “Damn, Mr. Parks, you made a criminal out of me.”

Parks was introduced to Red Jackson by a plainclothes policeman named Jimmy Morrow (who appears in the magazine). Parks waited two weeks, establishing trust with Jackson before he ever pulled out his camera. Over the next several weeks, Parks produced hundreds of negatives of Jackson, members of his gang, his family, and other aspects of his life in Harlem. As was typical of a photographer working on assignment for Life, Parks then handed over the negatives to the magazine’s technicians. From that point on, he had little control over the use and presentation of his pictures, which was left in the hands of editors. The following images present contact sheets, proof prints, and variant images, showing how pictures were cropped and transformed in the editing process.

In keeping with the bleak subtitle of the Life article (“Red Jackson’s life is one of fear, frustration, and violence”), the majority of the pictures selected for the magazine underscored violence, aggression, or despair. Although these kinds of images constitute a significant portion of Parks’ output, he made just as many pictures of intimate moments and carefree Harlem street life. In the vast collection of rejected images and outtakes, a more complete portrait of Red Jackson emerges as a complex and conflicted teenager who shoulders the rote burden of daily chores one moment and poses as a symbol of community leadership the next. The contact sheets and prints presented here represent this broader view of Jackson and his neighborhood and invite you to consider how a different selection of pictures might have altered the narrative presented in the Life magazine article.

This is one of only a few images that Parks made with a 35 mm camera. The smaller negative size resulted in a grainier picture, but it is still clear enough to recognize Red Jackson at the center of the image, shirtless, and wrenching open the hydrant for the neighborhood children.

The most glaring absence in the final Life picture essay is the lack of a stronger visual representation of the “boy mayor” episode. In a publicity stunt, Red Jackson was given a YMCA membership card, paraded around in a convertible Buick, and invited to give a radio address as mayor of Harlem for the day. In the end, this honor turned out to be a hollow gesture: the YMCA admissions card would not work unless Jackson paid dues and he was left to walk the 25 blocks home alone, with no money in his pocket, after the radio address. Parks created more images of this event than any other in the “Harlem Gang Leader” story, but the editors rejected almost all of them. The sequence of pictures on contact sheets here traces the complete and devastating arc of the event.

Red Jackson outlived Gordon Parks. Parks died at age ninety-three in 2006 and the following year, Jackson found himself once again in front of a photographer’s camera. Lyric Cabral (American, born 1982) produced a series of pictures of him in 2007. In these images Jackson is shown, hunched and frail, being helped along the sidewalk on his way to an emergency room. In another, his feet dangle between the legs of his walker as he sits on a hospital bed. These quiet, poignant images stand in stark contrast to the bold and violent images of Life, but they are not far, in feeling or spirit, from the unpublished images that Parks made of Jackson working at home. They remind us of the other Red Jackson, not the one so prominently displayed in the pages of Life, but the one who scrubbed the floor, washed the dishes, carried and entertained neighborhood children at parades, and cracked open the fire hydrant on hot days. This was the Red Jackson Life’s readers would not have a chance to know. This was the Red Jackson Gordon Parks knew. Leonard “Red” Jackson died in 2010, at age seventy-nine.

The images and text for this online exhibition were selected from a larger physical exhibition “Gordon Parks: The Making of An Argument,” which originated at the New Orleans Museum of Art (September 2013 - January 2014) and will be on view at The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia September 19 - December 21, 2014. An accompanying exhibition catalogue was published by Steidl, Gottigen, Germany.

The Gordon Parks Foundation permanently preserves the work of Gordon Parks, makes it available to the public through exhibitions, books, and electronic media and supports artistic and educational activities that advance what Gordon described as “the common search for a better life and a better world.” The Foundation is a division of the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation.

The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) is New Orleans' oldest fine arts institution. The Museum hosts an impressive permanent collection almost 40,000 objects and is particularly noted for its extraordinary strengths in French and American art, photography, glass, and African and Japanese works. The five-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at NOMA is one of the most important sculpture installations in the United States, with over 60 sculptures situated on a beautifully landscaped site amongst meandering footpaths and reflecting lagoons. (www.noma.org.)

Credits: Story

Selection and text — Russell Lord, Freeman Family Curator of Photographs, New Orleans Museum of Art
Production assistance — Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., Executive Director, The Gordon Parks Foundation; Amanda Smith, Archivist, The Gordon Parks Foundation; James Jordan, Collections Manager, The Gordon Parks Foundation; Sesthasak Boonchai, New Orleans Museum of Art; and, Roman Alokhin, New Orleans Museum of Art.
Credit — Life Magazine facsimile used with permission, copyright Time-Life. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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