"I still don't know exactly who I am," Gordon Parks wrote in a 1979 memoir. Despite being one of the biggest names in 20th century photography, he remains a paradoxical figure because he was so accomplished in many different fields. He was a noted writer and composer, and he also became the first black director in Hollywood, producing 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 '40s, he started working for LIFE magazine, where he became known for his photo essays. This Making of an Argument show at NOMA offers a close look at his 1948 Harlem Gang Leader photo 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 stands the test of time as Parks not only gets into the brawling lifestyle of his teenage subject, Leonard "Red" Jackson, but also gets into his head and home life in the modest flat Jackson 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, set against the backdrop of 1940s Harlem, where the special charisma that so often attends Harlem photos from the first half of the 20th century functions almost as an intriguing 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 gangsters 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. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT