News That Stays News: Gordon Parks, “The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957,” Reviewed by Robert Dunn

I’m always intrigued by how a timeless photobook comes together. Most often it’s the artist setting out to create a book following their personal vision, and after a lot of work—and perhaps many hours on press—accomplishing that. But sometimes great photobooks come from just a bunch of photos lying around, then edited down to the right shots and put in the right order by someone else, and it works. A prime example is William Eggleston’s “Guide,” in effect created as a book by John Szarkowski. Not so successful is Garry Winogrand with his stand-alone photobooks such as “Animals” and “Women Are Beautiful.” His real strength as a photographer was not in somebody’s discreet selection of some of his subjects into a book but the whole crazy spread of his genius across all manner of subjects and forms. It’s a question of how advertent a photographer is, how much she or he intended their photos to become a book.

Then there are the very rare books that hold together perfectly with no input from the photographer at all because they have passed. A classic is of course “Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph.” Her vision was so vivid, personal, and definitive that that simple collection of her photos makes as strong a book statement as can be.

A photographer in many ways connected to Arbus (similar dates of working, connection to big-time national magazines, unique qualities of subject and vision) is Gordon Parks. There are approximately a dozen books of his photos (some with his poetry), but most are collections. In his own time he was too busy working to put out artistic books, which led the way for Steidl in 2012 to publish a five-volume set of his “Collected Works.”

Now Steidl has followed that up with a new book that holds together as tight as any classic photobook, with no input from Parks other than that he was on assignment for Life magazine six decades back and took lots of shots, some of which ran in the magazine.

The result is “The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957,” and it’s spectacular. The photos themselves are not only unsung landmarks in color photography—we’re two decades short of Eggleston’s purported invention of color shooting—but they also tell a photographic story far richer than anyone would expect from a national magazine even at the top of its game, as Life was throughout the mid-century.

What do we see? The cover photo, a Black man’s left hand extended wrist-length through gray jail bars, an ash-rich cigarette held loosely between his fingers, all before a depressing yellow and green jail wall, lightly crisscrossed by shadows of further bars … the hand and its smoke that perfect detail that implies the whole, the harsh tedium and sadness of incarceration. On to the first of the book’s plates, the dark silhouette of an on-duty cop shot from behind before a rich cobalt blue evening sky, all in the middle of Times Square. A quiet, majestic shot … and no, that word didn’t pop into my head because one of the theater marquees is for the Majestic theater.

Then we get really arty. Three photos of another silhouette of a man, in the left front seat of a car, probably a policeman, eating an apple, all before the colorful wash of streetlights through the windshield. It could be a Daido Moriyama photo in its angle of focus and general blur, yet these shots were in the national American magazine, with tens of millions of readers across the land.

It’s to the Life editors’ credit that, though they no doubt sent Parks out to do a documentary feature on crime, which he handles with masterful skill, they also ran photos of such strikingly virtuosic color use. (Though norms of the day made Life not run Parks’s shots of dead men, nor three powerful sequenced photos of a man shooting up.)

Still, the crime photos are certainly there, and they’re as dramatic as can be. The most intense is two suited detectives, one with his pistol pulled, kicking down a door off a narrow tenement hallway. The furious grimace on the closest detective’s face speaks to the fury and heedlessness of police going about their business. Then comes more moody, half-blurred silhouetted shots, one with a man in a Panama hat with his hands held high in surrender, another holding a drooping gun before an orange glow. There have been countless reporter ride-alongs with police over the decades, and of course the flash-bright bloody sidewalks of Weegee, but I’ve never seen, nor could have imagined, a documentary series as hauntingly beautiful and striking as what Gordon Parks shot, and Steidl has put together for us here.

Indeed, “The Atmosphere of Crime” is a kind of textbook on how to shoot a documentary subject. There are basics such as fill the frame with a telling detail rather than show too much (that cover shot), and try to capture intense action, those cops kicking in the door, but also don’t be afraid to be quiet and still (two cops on a cigarette break, talking to a handcuffed man). You gotta cover the waterfront, as they say, and Parks does it, with photos of arrests, bookings, prisoners leaving a paddy wagon, a body slid out of a drawer in a morgue, and then the book’s final two photos, flocks of men lining the narrow catwalks outside their San Quentin prison cells, and a moody beautiful yet chilling shot of Alcatraz Island, when it held the notorious prison in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Parks’s book is not just the atmosphere of crime, it’s as deep a dive as could be taken into that world.

Yet it’s so much more. The key is to be an artist, always an artist, letting your own vision move the photos, rather than simply showing what’s in front of you. So with most of the photos I’ve described above we get Parks’s strengths with shadow and light, color and form, clarity and that always evocative Provoke-like blur, here a decade before anybody in Japan put it all together.

It’s Parks’s artistry in every shot, as well as his fearlessness and denial of any kind of conventional shooting, that makes “The Atmosphere of Crime” a towering example of Ezra Pound’s definition of literature: “News that stays news.”

That said, the book is unusually timely today, especially with the protests and debates in America over racial justice, and preponderance of people of color in our prisons; and now movements to let many of those souls, convicted of no more than selling cheap drugs, out. In more than one way, the atmosphere of crime, as Parks’s book has it, is the atmosphere everyone in America, from the top down, breathes every day.

So props again for Steidl for bringing this important photobook out in 2020.

Interesting, too, is how they’ve done it. As someone who waits eagerly for, then snaps up the deluxe versions of classic rock LPs put out fifty years after the fact, such as what Giles Martin has done with the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper,” “White Album,” and “Abbey Road,” I can appreciate the whole package here. Besides the grand extent of Parks’s photos for this Life magazine assignment, this great photobook on its own, we get numerous useful essays, and—best of all—the actual pages from the September 9, 1957 issue of Life that ran the article, then titled “Crime in the U.S.” There’s the “West Side Story”–redolent illustrated cover (one gang member wearing a SHARKS jacket), and the full story as it appeared in the magazine, from pages 88 to 111. These pages include even the ads from the time, including ones for Gleem toothpaste, Fruit of the Loom socks, and (my favorite), a full page introducing the Edsel automobile from Ford Motor Company (wonder how that’ll work out, eh?).

As a model of how to resurrect the past, yet be as current as this morning’s Twitter storm … as history, as a primer on the documentary photo essay, and most of all simply as a photobook of exceptional beauty, drama, and power … Gordon Parks’s “The Atmosphere of Crime” is essential.

The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957 by Gordon Parks can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.