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ARTH 2471 Paper Final

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ARTH 2471 Paper Final

  1. 1. Ross Youell 28 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.”i By following and photographing notorious Harlem gang leader Red Jackson in a complex, juxtaposed, and humane connotation, Parks did exactly that. However, one particular photo—Harlem Street Scene with Children Playing in Spray of Open Hydrant—lacks 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. 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.ii 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.iii However, his role as fashion photographer for
  2. 2. Ebony and Vogue inhibited such ambitions plans.iv Therefore, Parks applied for a freelance position at the magazine unequivocally regarded as a beacon of racial liberalism: Life magazine.v Taken aback and awed by Parks’ incredible photos and extensive portfolio, photography editor Wilson Hicks hired Parks on the spot.vi 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.vii 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.”viii Due in large part to the notion that Life “found him important enough to put at the center of the story,” Jackson—in a surprise reversal of emotion—agreed to let Parks into the daily life and struggle of his “Midtowners” gang.ix 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.x 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.xi With that being said, the ultimately decided-upon photos chosen for Parks’ Harlem Gang Leader painted a much different picture. Indeed, the photo-essay—by primarily focusing upon “the fights, early deaths, and ever-present apprehension that it said defined Jackson’s “unhappy life””—depicts Jackson and his gang not as “victims of an unjust social system,” but naturally violent objects.xii 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.xiii
  3. 3. 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.xiv 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. 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.xv However, it is important to note that Untitled, Harlem, New York is the only image within the entire exhibition to use 35mm film.xvi 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. 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 content—not form—of 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.xvii 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. 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
  4. 4. 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 Americans—as well as Red Jackson—are 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.”xviii 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 Lord—a 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.”xix 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, and—in this particular instance—a Harlem community member who cares deeply for the youth. By observing such a photo—and then placing it within the broader contexts of the exhibition—the viewer perceives Red Jackson not as a mere perpetrator of violence. Rather, he is both “troubled and redeemable,” a young man who—like you and me—is both “troubled and redeemable.”xx By juxtaposing the compositional normalcy with the specific act of opening a water hydrant on a hot summer day, it becomes clear that Red Jackson—as well as African Americans—should be perceived as multifaceted, inherently human individuals. However, that is not to say that African Americans were treated as such. In particular, a large majority of African Americans during the 1940s successfully migrated from the Deep South to northern cities and urban areas.xxi Otherwise known as the Second Great Migration, this vast movement of African Americans was rooted upon the notion that northern and
  5. 5. midwestern cities would allow for much greater opportunity of employment and equality.xxii However, the “segregation… discrimination in jobs and housing, police brutality, and humiliation…” engrained in the South persisted in the North.xxiii The grimaces and unhappy facial expressions of Jackson and the surrounding children within Figure 1 seem to imply such hardship. Indeed, these children should be smiling. School is out of session, the summer sun is brightly shining, and spraying hydrant water provides the perfect excuse to spend a day filled with friends and laughter. However, the societal condition and inferior placement of African Americans within the United States prevents even the happiness of naïve children. As a work that “draw[s] attention to the everyday conditions of the working classes and the poor,” this photo must therefore be placed within the constructs of social realism.xxiv However, Figure 1 is a uniquely different approach to social realists of the past. Indeed, while Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and other FSA photographers depicted farmers and the impoverished rural community as simple “starving fruit-pickers” who were fundamentally and visually different from the common man, Parks frames Red Jackson and this Harlem community as humane, complex, and normal.xxv Indeed, just as Robert Frank’s The Americans “gives voice to people, not victims,” so too does Parks create a nuanced and constantly juxtaposed view of black America.xxvi Yes, there is violence. Yes, there is poverty. And yes, there is injustice within this Harlem community. More than anything, however, African Americans are not passive objects. Rather, they are active human participants of life in need of government help. As one can see, Harlem Street Scene with Children Playing in Spray of Open Hydrant by Gordon Parks is a wonderfully magnificent and enriching photograph that seeks to incentivize governmental help in Harlem. Certainly, the strategy employed to create such an incentive is unique. For one, the use of the 35mm camera is different from Parks’ past—as well as the works of preceding social realist artists such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Additionally, the photo captures a seemingly happy scene of children playing in the street. As a result, the photo appears to celebrate—not lament—life in the ghetto. However, by juxtaposing such qualities within the context of Parks’ larger work—as well as observing the subtle yet
  6. 6. extraordinarily important facial expressions of Jackson and the surrounding children—it becomes clear that Parks has achieved his initial objective. With such statements in mind, it therefore comes as no surprise that this photo was ignored by Life magazine. Indeed, by framing this impoverished Harlem community as complex and innately human, Parks has challenged the white stereotype of African Americans as victims and perpetrators of their own violence. So, thank you Mr. Parks. Thank you for challenging the norm. Thank you for humanizing this seemingly objectified race. And, most importantly, thank you for making this beautiful photograph. We applaud you. Fig. 1. Gordon Parks, Harlem Street Scene with Children Playing in Spray of Open Hydrant. 1948, black and white photograph on gelatin print, 16in. x 20in. Currently residing in: Fralin Museum, Charlottesville, Virginia. Originating from: New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana. Available from: http://noma.org/uploads/original/Gordon_Parks_2-1377619514.jpg (Accessed 28 November, 2014).
  7. 7. i Mason, John E. "Good Poor Kids Gone Wrong: The Backstory to Gordon Parks’ “Harlem Gang Leader”." 3. Accessed November 29, 2014. http://www.virginia.edu/artmuseum/pdf/mason-parks-online-essay.pdf ii Fussell, Genevieve. "Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument - TheNew Yorker." TheNew Yorker. October 28, 2013. Accessed November 29, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/gordon-parks-the-making-of-an-argument. iii Mason 3 iv Mason 3 v Mason 4 vi Mason 7 vii Mason 7 viii Mason 7 ix Mason 8 x Mason 8 xi Mason 9 xii Mason 10,11 xiii Mason 11 xiv Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument. Fralin Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. Charlottesville, Va. 22903. 29 November 2014 xv Greenspun, Phillip. "Film Recommendations." Photography Community, including Forums, Reviews, and Galleries from Photo.net. 1996. Accessed November 29, 2014. http://photo.net/equipment/film. xvi Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument Fralin Art Museum. xvii Paul, Stella. "Abstract Expressionism". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museumof Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abex/hd_abex.htm (October 2004) xviii Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument xix Mason 9 xx Mason 9 xxi "TheSecond Great Migration." AAME. Accessed November 29, 2014. http://www.inmotionaame.org/print.cfm;jsessionid=f8302887111417235246487?migration=9&bhcp=1. xxii http://www.inmotionaame.org/print.cfm;jsessionid=f8302887111417235246487?migration=9&bhcp=1. xxiii http://www.inmotionaame.org/print.cfm;jsessionid=f8302887111417235246487?migration=9&bhcp=1. xxiv Todd, James G. "Art Terms." MoMA.org. 2009. Accessed November 29, 2014. http://www.moma.org/collection/theme.php?theme_id=10195. xxv "I Hear America Weeping: Robert Frank's "The Americans"" Haber's Art Review. Accessed November 29, 2014. http://www.haberarts.com/rfrank.htm. xxvi http://www.haberarts.com/rfrank.htm.
  8. 8. Full Bibliography: 1.) Fussell, Genevieve. "Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument - The New Yorker." The New Yorker. October 28, 2013. Accessed November 29, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo- booth/gordon-parks-the-making-of-an-argument. 2.) "Gordon Parks." Pinterest. Accessed November 29, 2014. http://www.pinterest.com/pin/571253533956142385/. 3.) Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument. Fralin Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. Charlottesville, Va. 22903. 29 November 2014 4.) Greenspun, Phillip. "Film Recommendations." Photography Community, including Forums, Reviews, and Galleries from Photo.net. 1996. Accessed November 29, 2014. http://photo.net/equipment/film. 5.) "I Hear America Weeping: Robert Frank's "The Americans"" Haber's Art Review. Accessed November 29, 2014. http://www.haberarts.com/rfrank.htm. 6.) Mason, John E. "Good Poor Kids Gone Wrong: The Backstory to Gordon Parks’ “Harlem Gang Leader”." Accessed November 29, 2014. Good Poor Kids Gone Wrong: The Backstory to Gordon Parks’ “Harlem Gang Leader”. http://www.virginia.edu/artmuseum/pdf/mason-parks-online-essay.pdf 7.) Paul, Stella. “Abstract Expressionism.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abex/hd_abex.htm October 2004. Accessed November 29, 2014. 8.) "The Second Great Migration." AAME. Accessed November 29, 2014. http://www.inmotionaame.org/print.cfm;jsessionid=f8302887111417235246487?migration=9&bhcp=1. 9.) Todd, James G. "Art Terms." MoMA.org. 2009. Accessed November 29, 2014. http://www.moma.org/collection/theme.php?theme_id=10195.

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