by C.C. Campbell-Rock
The New Orleans Museum of Art’s exhibition “Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument” is a must-see. Viewers are in for a stunning and insightful look at 1948 Harlem through iconic photographer’s lens and his photo essay of the life of Leonard “Red” Jackson, a 17-year-old gang leader. The exhibit runs through Jan. 12, 2014.
NOMA’s exhibition was created under the direction of Russell Lord, NOMA’s Freeman Family Curator of Photographs, in collaboration with the Gordon Parks Foundation.
The exhibit is based on Parks’ first photo essay for Life magazine titled “Harlem Gang Leader.” Parks became Life’s first African-American photographer and worked on assignment for the publication for 22 years. A copy of the original magazine is on display and the 21 photos selected by Life’s editors hang on the walls.
However, Lord goes beyond the essay by selecting 40 additional photos, perhaps giving credence to an alleged argument between Parks and Life’s editors, who chose to focus on the negative aspects of Jackson’s Midtowners gang, rather than on violence prevention and the segregated reality of African Americans in 1948 Harlem. The exhibit offers the broader narrative Parks sought. Images of family life, friends and good times are included.
NOMA staff mounted the black & white photos on gelatin sliver print with applied pigment; along with contact sheets with layout marks, cropping and shading, which illustrate how the editors perceived Jackson and his peers.
At the opening event, Lord spoke about how photography can be used as a narrative device and to address social concerns.
According to speculation about the photo essay, Life’s editors wanted to put a photo of “Red” holding a smoking gun on the cover. Gordon disagreed. He argued that the youth would think he betrayed his trust and that the photo would put the teen in danger of going to jail again. Red had already done jail time for possession of a firearm.
The editors wouldn’t relent, so the story goes that Gordon went to the layout room and took the incriminating negative and print. Unable to find the photo, the editors put a military leader on the cover and buried Parks’ essay in the back of the magazine.
“That story remains unproved,” Lord says, because there are no photos or negative around to validate it.
“In keeping with the bleak subtitle of the Life photo essay (“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. In the vast collection of rejected images and outtakes, a more complete portrait emerges of Red Jackson 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,” Lord writes in the exhibition’s wall text.
Gordon Parks chronicled the civil rights and was also a filmmaker, musician/composer and author. He died in 2006, but Gordon Parks’ visionary art and humanitarianism lives on in his work.
In “A Choice of Weapons,” Parks explains, “I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty. I could have just as easily picked up a knife or a gun, like many of my childhood friends did… most of who were murdered or put in prison… but I chose not to go that way. I felt that I could somehow subdue these evils by doing something beautiful that people recognize me by, and thus make a whole different life for myself, which has proved to be so.”
“The Making of an Argument,” takes the viewer on a roller coaster ride of highs and lows and some pleasant surprises. It is breathtaking. Lord confirmed that the NOMA exhibit will travel and already has two dates on its schedule.
Gordon Parks: “The Making of an Argument”
Sept. 12, 2013 – Jan. 12, 2014
New Orleans Museum of Art
One Collins C. Diboll Circle, City Park,
New Orleans, Louisiana 70124