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ARTH 2471 Paper Final

Jan 18, 2017



Ross Youell28 November 2014

Harlem Street Scene with Children Playing in Spray of Open Hydrant: An investigation of Composition, Theme, Race, and Intended Motives

Photographer. Filmmaker. Poet. Simply put, Gordon Parks is the quintessence of an artist. However, Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument clearly demonstrates that Parks was not only an artist, but also an individual who regarded photography as his weapons in the fight for social justice.[endnoteRef:1] By following and photographing notorious Harlem gang leader Red Jackson in a complex, juxtaposed, and humane connotation, Parks did exactly that. However, one particular photoHarlem Street Scene with Children Playing in Spray of Open Hydrantlacks the traditional clarity of Parks, has a seemingly celebratory message, and visually underemphasizes the importance of Red Jackson. Although such characteristics are a seeming contradiction to Parks and his intended message of poverty and racial oppression as the root causes of juvenile delinquency, closer investigation reveals otherwise. Specifically, the photo humanizes black America, creates a juxtaposing view of Red Jackson, and demonstrates the implicit grief and sadness of African Americans in the 1940s. Therefore, Harlem Street Scene with Children Playing in Spray of Open Hydrant is not only a photo, but also the unequivocal epitome of Gordon Parks intended message. [1: Mason, John E. "Good Poor Kids Gone Wrong: The Backstory to Gordon Parks Harlem Gang Leader." 3. Accessed November 29, 2014.]

First and foremost, it must be noted that Harlem Street Scene with Children Playing in Spray of Open Hydrant (shortened to Figure 1 for brevity purposes within this paper) is a singular photo within the all-encompassing exhibition entitled Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument. Currently on display at the Fralin Art Museum in Charlottesville, Virginia, this particular exhibition explores the fascinating relationship between photojournalist, magazine editor, and viewer.[endnoteRef:2] Indeed, as Gordon Parks perceived the camera and the typewriter as what he would later call his weapons for social justice, he long sought to create a series of photos that would demonstrate the root cause of teenage delinquency (gangs) in the black community: racial oppression and poverty.[endnoteRef:3] However, his role as fashion photographer for Ebony and Vogue inhibited such ambitions plans.[endnoteRef:4] Therefore, Parks applied for a freelance position at the magazine unequivocally regarded as a beacon of racial liberalism: Life magazine.[endnoteRef:5] Taken aback and awed by Parks incredible photos and extensive portfolio, photography editor Wilson Hicks hired Parks on the spot.[endnoteRef:6] However, Hicks initially had serious doubts about Parks ambitious project. After all, photographing the intricacies of teenage delinquency implied that Parks would have to find a cooperative gang leader.[endnoteRef:7] Such an obstacle, however, was quickly overcome. In particular, friend, tennis partner, and Harlem detective steered Parks towards Red Jackson, a gang leader who was cooperating with police to ease tensions between rival gangs.[endnoteRef:8] Due in large part to the notion that Life found him important enough to put at the center of the story, Jacksonin a surprise reversal of emotionagreed to let Parks into the daily life and struggle of his Midtowners gang.[endnoteRef:9] [2: Fussell, Genevieve. "Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument - The New Yorker." The New Yorker. October 28, 2013. Accessed November 29, 2014.] [3: Mason 3] [4: Mason 3] [5: Mason 4] [6: Mason 7] [7: Mason 7] [8: Mason 7] [9: Mason 8]

However, in order to photograph with the intimacy and detail he yearned for, Parks first had to establish a relationship with Jackson and his gang. As a result, Parks followed, spent time with, and observed the gang without ever employing the camera for two entire weeks.[endnoteRef:10] Not surprisingly, the photos that followed were a complex and juxtaposed array of photos that depicted Jackson, his gang, and African Americans not as mere objects and perpetrators of violence, but complex humans mired by the consequences of poverty and racial oppression.[endnoteRef:11] [10: Mason 8] [11: Mason 9]

With that being said, the ultimately decided-upon photos chosen for Parks Harlem Gang Leader painted a much different picture. Indeed, the photo-essayby primarily focusing upon the fights, early deaths, and ever-present apprehension that it said defined Jacksons unhappy lifedepicts Jackson and his gang not as victims of an unjust social system, but naturally violent objects.[endnoteRef:12] By juxtaposing the actual photo-essay with a plethora of overlooked and disregarded Gordon Parks photos, Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument clearly demonstrates such contradictions. Indeed, Harlem Gang Leader was not meant to provide viewers with a holistic and truthful account of life within a gang. Rather, it was a limited, narrowly construed photo-essay meant to perpetuate the stereotype of young black men as natural predators responsible for their own social condition.[endnoteRef:13] [12: Mason 10,11] [13: Mason 11]

To explain how Figure 1 in particular fits Parks intended message, its composition must first be described. Specifically, the photo is a 16x20, black and white gelatin print that captures Red Jackson opening a Harlem water hydrant on a hot summer day.[endnoteRef:14] Meanwhile, the scene within the photo is extraordinarily rich in content. Children are in ecstatic and kinetic movement, water is spewing uncontrollably from the water hydrant, and the summer sun is brightly reflecting from the water-drenched street. Moreover, the compositional quality of the bright, radiating whiteness of gushing water leads the eye of the observer to the center of the photo. [14: Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument. Fralin Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. Charlottesville, Va. 22903. 29 November 2014]

However, the most interesting yet perplexing compositional characteristic of Untitled is its use of a 35mm camera. True, this particular camera was popularly and widely used within the confines of photojournalism.[endnoteRef:15] However, it is important to note that Untitled, Harlem, New York is the only image within the entire exhibition to use 35mm film.[endnoteRef:16] Indeed, as a former fashion photographer that prided himself upon the construction of clear, high resolution, and crisp images, the graininess and lack of clarity attributed to this particular photo seems to be the quintessential antithesis to preceding works of Parks. [15: Greenspun, Phillip. "Film Recommendations." Photography Community, including Forums, Reviews, and Galleries from 1996. Accessed November 29, 2014.] [16: Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument Fralin Art Museum. ]

Regardless of the visual peculiarity of this photo, the decision to use 35mm film must be conceived as a subtle strategy that further emboldens Parks intended message. In particular, the lack of clarity points to the contentnot formof the photo. Indeed, just as abstract expressionists sacrifices aesthetic beauty and quality for content rich with meaning, so too does Parks grainy photo force the viewer to focus on the particular scene and its intended message.[endnoteRef:17] Therefore, instead of marveling over distinct lines, eloquent composition, and tremendous precision, the observer is forced to perceive the image for what it inherently is: a photo capturing African American children playing in a street. There is no connotation of inferiority, prejudice, or inherent sense of criminality. Rather, by capturing such an everyday scene in an extraordinarily simple and mundane way, Parks is alluding to the humanity and normalcy of this Harlem neighborhood. [17: Paul, Stella. "Abstract Expressionism". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. (October 2004) ]

Similarly, Parks use of a 35mm camera normalizes Red Jackson. Certainly, Jackson is in the center of the photo. And yes, his face is clearly recognizable. However, the notorious gang leader is not the focal point of this image. Not only that, but the graininess and lack of lighting forces the viewer to perceive Jackson as just another individual. He is no longer a notorious gang leader responsible for a plethora of violent acts; rather, he is a singular member of the larger Harlem community. Simply put, the subtle compositional use of the 35mm camera does not contradict or challenge the larger work of Parks. Rather, it is a strategy used by Parks that reinforces and emboldens the notion that African Americansas well as Red Jacksonare inherently normal and ordinary human beings.With that being said, the specific action within the photo must be noted. Indeed, Red Jackson is shirtless wrenching open the hydrant for the neighborhood children.[endnoteRef:18] Although the 35mm camera normalizes and underemphasizes such an act, it nonetheless combines with the larger work of Parks to create a juxtaposed view of Jackson. In the words of Russell Lorda researcher on Parks and Harlem Gang Leader,Parks captures Jackson as an inherently complex and multifarious teenager who leads a sometimes violent gang and who, at other times, shoulders the rote burden of daily chores at home and stands as a symbol of community leadership in his neighborhood.[endnoteRef:19] Therefore, Figure 1 is not an isolated and separate entity. Rather, it is a photo that must be contextualized with the larger works of Parks. Red Jackson is a gang leader, son, friend, neighborhood leader, andin t

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