Revisiting Gordon Parks’ Classic Photo Essay, ‘Harlem Gang Leader’

552784.jpgHarlem Gang Leader” introduced Gordon Parks to America. LIFE magazine, which published the photo essay in its Nov. 1, 1948, issue, had every reason to be proud of the man it called “a young Negro photographer.” He had, it said, spent “four hectic weeks” exploring the world of Red Jackson, the 17-year-old leader of the Midtowners, a gang in Harlem, making hundreds of photographs. Most of the 21 pictures that LIFE’s editors chose for the story evoked the deep shadows and pervasive anxiety of classic film noir. Parks’ field notes provided the raw material for a narrative that mirrored the photographs’ sense of foreboding.  The photo essay, while largely compassionate, ultimately depicted Jackson’s existence as one that was shaped by senseless violence and thwarted dreams.

In many ways Parks viewed “Harlem Gang Leader” as a success. Years later, in a memoir, he recalled that “[s]ympathetic letters, along with a few vitriolic ones, poured in” to LIFE’s offices and that Henry Luce, the magazine’s founder, sent him “a congratulatory note.” When Wilson Hicks, LIFE’s longtime photo editor, offered him a position as a staff photographer soon afterwards, he happily accepted, making him the first, and for many years only, African American photographer at the magazine.

Yet it is unlikely that “Harlem Gang Leader,” with its emphasis on violence and pessimistic conclusion, fulfilled the hopes that Parks brought to the project. In 1946 Ebony, a magazine similar to LIFE that catered to an African American audience, reported that Parks had been looking for an opportunity to work on a photo essay about juvenile delinquency among black youth for some time. He believed that gang members were simply “good, poor kids gone wrong,” Ebony wrote.  He felt that if he could “show enough of the kids’ home background on film, he can . . . show the way out of juvenile crime to any social agency which wants to wipe it out.”

A year later Ebony offered Parks the chance to produce a story that was, in effect, a trial run for “Harlem Gang Leader.” (See slides 19 and 20 in the gallery above.) For a photo essay about Harlem’s Northside Testing and Consultation Center, a mental health clinic founded by African American psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark, he employed amateur models to create a number of “hypothetical cases” to illustrate the therapy that the clinic offered to troubled youth. Among Parks’ case studies was “Bob,” a young gang leader. A series of photographs showed “Bob’s” transformation under Dr. Kenneth Clark’s care, from a rough gang leader in the first of Parks’ photographs to an obedient son and eager student in the last.
Read more: Gordon Parks’ Classic Photo Essay, ‘Harlem Gang Leader’ |

GFBrandenburg's Blog

A researcher has looked into the claims of Eva Moskowitz and her Harlem Success Academy that they do a much better job of educating the exact same types of kids than do the local public schools.

The writer shows that none of those claims are true: these Moskowitz Academies do NOT enroll the same types of students; they have enormous attrition rates; and even with all that skimming and “creaming”, they are not very successful.

The post is at Diane Ravitch’s blog at .

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