The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957 presents images Gordon Parks made while working on “The Atmosphere of Crime,” a 1957 photographic essay in Life magazine, and that are now in the holdings of The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). I started reading the essays and looking through the images a few days before jurors in Minnesota handed down their too-rare guilty verdict. Insofar as the pictures included were made, at time of writing, 64 years ago, they seem, with the clothing and vehicles and grain, like something out of history; insofar as Parks’ photographs point to the ways police operate, largely against economically disadvantaged black and brown people, they seem prescient and timely, even if the cops have a bit of a Sheriff Andy character to them that seem quaint today, in the age of tanks and body armor and tear gas and rubber bullets, not to mention “I can’t breathe.”
The book opens with an essay by Bryan Stevenson, “The Lens of Gordon Parks: A Different Picture of Crime in America,” which provides a brief biography of Parks in relation to lynching, twentieth century Jim Crow laws, and the long history of policing the poor and different, of police coming into being largely, and only, to police the poor and different.
Later essays extend and expand this theme. In “Policing and the Production of Crime,” Nicole R. Fleetwood discusses the history of crime statistics, of tracking crimes committed and by whom, and situates statistics discussed in Robert Wallace’s “Crime in the U.S.,” the article that accompanied Parks’ photographs in Life in the shifting (inter)national thoughts on categorizing, tracking, and understanding crime. And in “Framing Crime in Photographs,” Sarah Hermanson Meister discusses the history of mug shots and other evidentiary photography, and talks about creating and organizing and arranging the various works in the May 2020 exhibition at MoMA. A complete scan of Robert Wallace’s “Crime in the U.S.” and Parks’ “The Atmosphere of Crime” as they appeared in the September 9, 1957 issue of Life magazine appear at the end, after being mentioned by most of the other authors.
In between the Stevenson and Fleetwood essays, Parks’ photographs flow from the street, where police surveil and harass what appear to be poor and working class people in New York and (mostly) Chicago, then go on to bust down a door, arrest a suspect, beat up a few bystanders, and haul the poor, low level addict to the station for arrest and questioning. Parks then follows the trial and sentencing, and travels to San Quentin to show the prison and gas chamber.
Interestingly, one of the images from “The Atmosphere of Crime” series isn’t included in the plates, and I wonder how or why it didn’t make it into MoMA’s collection of Parks’ work. It’s not a huge deal at all, I’d just be interested to compare the crops, really.
One thing that I made a big deal of in reading, but found to be less of an issue upon review: the various authors seem to hold Robert Wallace (who wrote the 1957 article) and the editors of Life magazine to a 2021 standard of woke-ness that they couldn’t possibly have. Life, for its part, was a magazine for the dominant (white) culture, and was completely and only of its time: in 1957 schools and water fountains and lunch counters were still segregated. Sure, there were growing voices, but still. And Wallace, for his part, is about as woke as a Life writer, writing in 1957, could possibly be.
I don’t mean to be an apologist for dog whistle racism or any shit like that. I am a realist when it comes to history, though, and while I wasn’t alive in 1957 (my parents hadn’t yet started kindergarten), I know it was a far far different world than the one I was born into; I also know that the world I was born into was closer to 1957 than to 2021, and we’ve progressed quite a bit as a nation, and still have a long long long long long way to go. The essays in The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957 are of their time (2020) just as Wallace’s essay was of his.
Anyway. The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957 is an excellent and important book.
Highly Recommended. Unrated.
The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957 remains available direct from Steidl and elsewhere, and MoMA has a microsite about its ongoing (through September, 2021) exhibition that’s worth a look. Especially now, as we hopefully begin to hold police accountable for their actions, it’s good to look back at how things were in earlier times and imagine both how things have changed, and how things might look in the future, and the images Parks made are valuable and timely.