Harlem Gang Leader, 1948 - Photography Archive - The Gordon Parks Foundation

Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1948

The first story that Parks proposed to Life magazine was a piece on the gang wars that were consuming Harlem in the late 1940s. The great challenge was to gain to the trust of gang members. Parks found success when he met Red Jackson, a young Black man who led a gang known as the Midtowners. Pushing through the aggression and suspicion that at first confronted him, Parks spent a week driving Jackson and his companions around in his Buick Roadmaster (which Jackson loved), learning where turf lines were drawn, weighing the value of honor and loyalty, and discovering the daily reality of death, before asking Jackson if he could use his camera.

Parks hoped that in bringing Harlem’s brutality to light, he could dispel the danger that threatened its residents, but he wanted to do so without risking his subjects or himself. He succeeded just barely. Parks’s writings from the piece include transcriptions of Jackson’s brutal stories, and an account of how Parks had to run from an attack by the Sabers, a rival gang that had ambushed the funeral of a Midtowner.

These Harlem photographs reflect Parks’s complex ambitions. They present young men in quiet, contemplative moments and in the blurred heat of savage brawls. Perhaps the most unforgettable image is from the funeral incident, in which Jackson and Parks, pursued by the Sabers, took refuge on the second floor of an abandoned building. This photograph solidified what would be Parks’ lengthy career at Life