Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Making of Gordon Parks' 1948 "Harlem Gang Leader" Photo Essay at the New Orleans Museum of Art

"I still don't know exactly who I am," Gordon Parks once wrote in a 1979 memoir. Despite being one of  the biggest names in 20th century photography, he remains a paradoxical figure today because he was so accomplished in so many different fields. A noted writer and composer, he also became the first black director in Hollywood, where he produced sensitive depictions of African American life before moving on to create the seminal "blaxploitation" film, Shaft. A later film about Louisiana blues legend Leadbelly flopped, but the magazine he co-founded, Essence, is still going strong. The son of a Kansas sharecropper, Parks lived by his wits as a teen orphan in the 1920s before teaching himself photography in the 1930s. By the late 1940s was working for Life Magazine, where he became known for his photo essays. This Making of an Argument show at NOMA gives us a close up look at his great 1948 Harlem Gang Leader series while also providing a rare behind the scenes view of his process via crop-marked contact sheets like the one seen here.

Gang Leader more than withstands the test of time as Parks not only gets into the brawling lifestyle of his teenage subject, Leonard "Red" Jackson, he also gets into his head and home life in the modest flat he shared with his mother and siblings. Scenes of violent gang confrontations and Jackson stalking his rivals alternate with views of him dutifully sharing domestic chores, all set against the backdrop of  Harlem in the 1940s, where the special charisma that so often attends Harlem photos from the first half of the 20th century functions almost as an intriguing extra character in the plot. As with classic fiction, the times and settings may change, but human nature remains the same. Even so, those 1940s Harlem gangstas somehow seemed classier than their inner city equivalents today, maybe because of their dapper taste in clothes. Parks later became an internationally famous fashion photographer.

The Making of an Argument: Photography by Gordon Parks, through Jan. 5, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.