Gordon Parks at Vassar

The banner: Gang Member with Brick, Harlem, New York, 1944 Gordon Parks (1912–2006)


There’s an interesting photo exhibit just opened at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar.  

Called “the Making of an Argument” it shows the story of Gordon Park’s Life magazine photo essay from 1948. The subject was Leonard (Red) Jackson – the teenage leader of the Harlem gang the Midtowners.

The story was titled “Harlem Gang Leader” and the photo selection meets those expectations with an emphasis on evocative photos of violence, fear and aggression.

In addition to the final photograph and  the pages from the magazine there are also the ones not chosen for publication. Seen together they present a much fuller and more positive story. The contact sheets show the decision-making process of Life’s editors.  The cropping and the darkening add to feeling of threat and despair.  

The photo essay presented a story in 21 photos. The exhibit allows us a critical look at how that story was created by showing the expanded work from which they were chosen.  It’s an insight into how narratives are shaped and stories angled..

The exhibit shows how context can change the impression, impact and meaning.  And notable  of course are the photos that did not make the magazine selection – pictures that suggest a kinder, gentler, more positive reality amidst the grim brutality.

One of the few that did make the cut is this domestic scene. “Red”‘s life was not entirely “fear, frustration and violence”.

Caption from LIFE. Red holds ball of yarn while his mother listens to the radio and knits a table mat. Older brother practices his hobby of sketching

There’s also an interesting set of portraits of an elderly and ailing “Red” taken by photographer Lyric Cabral.

Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument is organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art in collaboration with The Gordon Parks Foundation. It is supported at Vassar by the Friends of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center Exhibition Fund and the Horace Goldsmith Exhibition Fund.

The exhibit runs until December 13th. Well worth a visit.

You can see many of the Life photos here including Untitled 1948 that shows a shirtless “Red” wrenching a fire hydrant open.

Untitled, 1948

Untitled, 1948

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