Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Crime scenes

"Who are the goodies and who are the baddies?" It's a question my son often asks me when we're sat in front of a TV programme or film, and one that betrays an innate human desire for clearly defined and simplistic moral narratives. Reality, of course, is much messier than that - something underscored by the crime photographs taken by Life magazine staffer Gordon Parks around the US in the late 1950s.

In this Atlantic article prompted by the publication of a new book showcasing the images, The Atmosphere Of Crime, former Life editor-in-chief Bill Shapiro emphasises the significance of Parks' use of colour film as a very literal means of suggesting that nothing is black and white. The book's editor, Sarah Meister, argues that the pictures paint "a more nuanced view of crime than had ever been captured in photography before that".

Parks humanises or obscures those who have fallen foul of the law while simultaneously shining a forensic flashlight on police work and procedures. In this respect, and in the way that (in Meister's words) "he understood that crime wasn't just about a criminal but about economic circumstance, about the way neighborhoods are constructed, the way police officers are told to do their jobs", Parks' series feels like a series of stills from a prequel to The Wire.

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