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28 November 2014
Harlem Street Scene with Children Playing in Spray of Open Hydrant: An investigation of Composition,
Theme, Race, and Intended Motives
Photographer. Filmmaker. Poet. Simply put, Gordon Parks is the quintessence of an artist.
However, Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument clearly demonstrates that Parks was not only an
artist, but also an individual who regarded photography as his “ ‘weapons’ in the fight for social justice.”i
By following and photographing notorious Harlem gang leader Red Jackson in a complex, juxtaposed,
and humane connotation, Parks did exactly that. However, one particular photo—Harlem Street Scene
with Children Playing in Spray of Open Hydrant—lacks the traditional clarity of Parks, has a seemingly
celebratory message, and visually underemphasizes the importance of Red Jackson. Although such
characteristics are a seeming contradiction to Parks and his intended message of poverty and racial
oppression as the root causes of juvenile delinquency, closer investigation reveals otherwise. Specifically,
the photo humanizes black America, creates a juxtaposing view of Red Jackson, and demonstrates the
implicit grief and sadness of African Americans in the 1940s. Therefore, Harlem Street Scene with
Children Playing in Spray of Open Hydrant is not only a photo, but also the unequivocal epitome of
Gordon Parks’ intended message.
First and foremost, it must be noted that Harlem Street Scene with Children Playing in Spray of
Open Hydrant (shortened to Figure 1 for brevity purposes within this paper) is a singular photo within the
all-encompassing exhibition entitled Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument. Currently on display at
the Fralin Art Museum in Charlottesville, Virginia, this particular exhibition explores the fascinating
relationship between photojournalist, magazine editor, and viewer.ii Indeed, as Gordon Parks perceived
“the camera and the typewriter as what he would later call his “weapons” for social justice,” he long
sought to create a series of photos that would demonstrate the root cause of teenage delinquency (gangs)
in the black community: racial oppression and poverty.iii However, his role as fashion photographer for
Ebony and Vogue inhibited such ambitions plans.iv Therefore, Parks applied for a freelance position at the
magazine unequivocally regarded as a beacon of racial liberalism: Life magazine.v Taken aback and awed
by Parks’ incredible photos and extensive portfolio, photography editor Wilson Hicks hired Parks on the
spot.vi However, Hicks initially had serious doubts about Parks’ ambitious project. After all,
photographing the intricacies of teenage delinquency implied that Parks would have to find a cooperative
gang leader.vii Such an obstacle, however, was quickly overcome. In particular, friend, tennis partner, and
Harlem detective steered Parks towards Red Jackson, a gang leader who was “cooperating with police to
ease tensions between rival gangs.”viii Due in large part to the notion that Life “found him important
enough to put at the center of the story,” Jackson—in a surprise reversal of emotion—agreed to let Parks
into the daily life and struggle of his “Midtowners” gang.ix
However, in order to photograph with the intimacy and detail he yearned for, Parks first had to
establish a relationship with Jackson and his gang. As a result, Parks followed, spent time with, and
observed the gang without ever “employing the camera” for two entire weeks.x Not surprisingly, the
photos that followed were a complex and juxtaposed array of photos that depicted Jackson, his gang, and
African Americans not as mere objects and perpetrators of violence, but complex humans mired by the
consequences of poverty and racial oppression.xi
With that being said, the ultimately decided-upon photos chosen for Parks’ Harlem Gang Leader
painted a much different picture. Indeed, the photo-essay—by primarily focusing upon “the fights, early
deaths, and ever-present apprehension that it said defined Jackson’s “unhappy life””—depicts Jackson
and his gang not as “victims of an unjust social system,” but naturally violent objects.xii By juxtaposing
the actual photo-essay with a plethora of overlooked and disregarded Gordon Parks photos, “Gordon
Parks: The Making of an Argument” clearly demonstrates such contradictions. Indeed, Harlem Gang
Leader was not meant to provide viewers with a holistic and truthful account of life within a gang. Rather,
it was a limited, narrowly construed photo-essay meant to perpetuate the stereotype of young black men
as “natural predators” responsible for their own social condition.xiii
To explain how Figure 1 in particular fits Parks’ intended message, its composition must first be
described. Specifically, the photo is a 16x20, black and white gelatin print that captures Red Jackson
opening a Harlem water hydrant on a hot summer day.xiv Meanwhile, the scene within the photo is
extraordinarily rich in content. Children are in ecstatic and kinetic movement, water is spewing
uncontrollably from the water hydrant, and the summer sun is brightly reflecting from the water-drenched
street. Moreover, the compositional quality of the bright, radiating whiteness of gushing water leads the
eye of the observer to the center of the photo.
However, the most interesting yet perplexing compositional characteristic of Untitled is its use of
a 35mm camera. True, this particular camera was popularly and widely used within the confines of
photojournalism.xv However, it is important to note that Untitled, Harlem, New York is the only image
within the entire exhibition to use 35mm film.xvi Indeed, as a former fashion photographer that prided
himself upon the construction of clear, high resolution, and crisp images, the graininess and lack of clarity
attributed to this particular photo seems to be the quintessential antithesis to preceding works of Parks.
Regardless of the visual peculiarity of this photo, the decision to use 35mm film must be
conceived as a subtle strategy that further emboldens Parks’ intended message. In particular, the lack of
clarity points to the content—not form—of the photo. Indeed, just as abstract expressionists sacrifices
aesthetic beauty and quality for “content rich with meaning,” so too does Parks’ grainy photo force the
viewer to focus on the particular scene and its intended message.xvii Therefore, instead of marveling over
distinct lines, eloquent composition, and tremendous precision, the observer is forced to perceive the
image for what it inherently is: a photo capturing African American children playing in a street. There is
no connotation of inferiority, prejudice, or inherent sense of criminality. Rather, by capturing such an
everyday scene in an extraordinarily simple and mundane way, Parks is alluding to the humanity and
normalcy of this Harlem neighborhood.
Similarly, Parks’ use of a 35mm camera normalizes Red Jackson. Certainly, Jackson is in the
center of the photo. And yes, his face is clearly recognizable. However, the notorious gang leader is not
the focal point of this image. Not only that, but the graininess and lack of lighting forces the viewer to
perceive Jackson as just another individual. He is no longer a notorious gang leader responsible for a
plethora of violent acts; rather, he is a singular member of the larger Harlem community. Simply put, the
subtle compositional use of the 35mm camera does not contradict or challenge the larger work of Parks.
Rather, it is a strategy used by Parks that reinforces and emboldens the notion that African Americans—as
well as Red Jackson—are inherently normal and ordinary human beings.
With that being said, the specific action within the photo must be noted. Indeed, Red Jackson is
“shirtless… wrenching open the hydrant for the neighborhood children.”xviii Although the 35mm camera
normalizes and underemphasizes such an act, it nonetheless combines with the larger work of Parks to
create a juxtaposed view of Jackson. In the words of Russell Lord—a researcher on Parks and “Harlem
Gang Leader,”—Parks captures Jackson as an inherently complex and multifarious teenager “who leads a
sometimes violent gang and who, at other times, “shoulders the rote burden of daily chores” at home and
stands as “a symbol of community leadership” in his neighborhood.”xix Therefore, Figure 1 is not an
isolated and separate entity. Rather, it is a photo that must be contextualized with the larger works of
Parks. Red Jackson is a gang leader, son, friend, neighborhood leader, and—in this particular instance—a
Harlem community member who cares deeply for the youth. By observing such a photo—and then
placing it within the broader contexts of the exhibition—the viewer perceives Red Jackson not as a mere
perpetrator of violence. Rather, he is both “troubled and redeemable,” a young man who—like you and
me—is both “troubled and redeemable.”xx
By juxtaposing the compositional normalcy with the specific act of opening a water hydrant on a
hot summer day, it becomes clear that Red Jackson—as well as African Americans—should be perceived
as multifaceted, inherently human individuals. However, that is not to say that African Americans were
treated as such. In particular, a large majority of African Americans during the 1940s successfully
migrated from the Deep South to northern cities and urban areas.xxi Otherwise known as the Second Great
Migration, this vast movement of African Americans was rooted upon the notion that northern and
midwestern cities would allow for much greater opportunity of employment and equality.xxii However, the
“segregation… discrimination in jobs and housing, police brutality, and humiliation…” engrained in the
South persisted in the North.xxiii
The grimaces and unhappy facial expressions of Jackson and the surrounding children within
Figure 1 seem to imply such hardship. Indeed, these children should be smiling. School is out of session,
the summer sun is brightly shining, and spraying hydrant water provides the perfect excuse to spend a day
filled with friends and laughter. However, the societal condition and inferior placement of African
Americans within the United States prevents even the happiness of naïve children.
As a work that “draw[s] attention to the everyday conditions of the working classes and the poor,”
this photo must therefore be placed within the constructs of social realism.xxiv However, Figure 1 is a
uniquely different approach to social realists of the past. Indeed, while Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans,
and other FSA photographers depicted farmers and the impoverished rural community as simple “starving
fruit-pickers” who were fundamentally and visually different from the common man, Parks frames Red
Jackson and this Harlem community as humane, complex, and normal.xxv Indeed, just as Robert Frank’s
The Americans “gives voice to people, not victims,” so too does Parks create a nuanced and constantly
juxtaposed view of black America.xxvi Yes, there is violence. Yes, there is poverty. And yes, there is
injustice within this Harlem community. More than anything, however, African Americans are not
passive objects. Rather, they are active human participants of life in need of government help.
As one can see, Harlem Street Scene with Children Playing in Spray of Open Hydrant by Gordon
Parks is a wonderfully magnificent and enriching photograph that seeks to incentivize governmental help
in Harlem. Certainly, the strategy employed to create such an incentive is unique. For one, the use of the
35mm camera is different from Parks’ past—as well as the works of preceding social realist artists such as
Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Additionally, the photo captures a seemingly happy scene of children
playing in the street. As a result, the photo appears to celebrate—not lament—life in the ghetto. However,
by juxtaposing such qualities within the context of Parks’ larger work—as well as observing the subtle yet
extraordinarily important facial expressions of Jackson and the surrounding children—it becomes clear
that Parks has achieved his initial objective. With such statements in mind, it therefore comes as no
surprise that this photo was ignored by Life magazine. Indeed, by framing this impoverished Harlem
community as complex and innately human, Parks has challenged the white stereotype of African
Americans as victims and perpetrators of their own violence. So, thank you Mr. Parks. Thank you for
challenging the norm. Thank you for humanizing this seemingly objectified race. And, most importantly,
thank you for making this beautiful photograph. We applaud you.
Fig. 1. Gordon Parks, Harlem Street Scene with Children Playing in Spray of Open Hydrant.
1948, black and white photograph on gelatin print, 16in. x 20in. Currently residing in: Fralin Museum,
Charlottesville, Virginia. Originating from: New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Available from: http://noma.org/uploads/original/Gordon_Parks_2-1377619514.jpg (Accessed 28
i Mason, John E. "Good Poor Kids Gone Wrong: The Backstory to Gordon Parks’ “Harlem Gang Leader”." 3. Accessed November 29, 2014.
ii Fussell, Genevieve. "Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument - TheNew Yorker." TheNew Yorker. October 28, 2013. Accessed
November 29, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/gordon-parks-the-making-of-an-argument.
iv Mason 3
v Mason 4
vi Mason 7
vii Mason 7
viii Mason 7
ix Mason 8
x Mason 8
xi Mason 9
xii Mason 10,11
xiii Mason 11
xiv Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument. Fralin Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. Charlottesville, Va. 22903. 29 November 2014
xv Greenspun, Phillip. "Film Recommendations." Photography Community, including Forums, Reviews, and Galleries from Photo.net. 1996.
Accessed November 29, 2014. http://photo.net/equipment/film.
xvi Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument Fralin Art Museum.
xvii Paul, Stella. "Abstract Expressionism". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museumof Art, 2000–.
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abex/hd_abex.htm (October 2004)
xviii Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument
xix Mason 9
xx Mason 9
xxi "TheSecond Great Migration." AAME. Accessed November 29, 2014.
xxiv Todd, James G. "Art Terms." MoMA.org. 2009. Accessed November 29, 2014.
xxv "I Hear America Weeping: Robert Frank's "The Americans"" Haber's Art Review. Accessed November 29, 2014.
1.) Fussell, Genevieve. "Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument - The New Yorker." The
New Yorker. October 28, 2013. Accessed November 29, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-
2.) "Gordon Parks." Pinterest. Accessed November 29, 2014.
3.) Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument. Fralin Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road.
Charlottesville, Va. 22903. 29 November 2014
4.) Greenspun, Phillip. "Film Recommendations." Photography Community, including Forums,
Reviews, and Galleries from Photo.net. 1996. Accessed November 29, 2014.
5.) "I Hear America Weeping: Robert Frank's "The Americans"" Haber's Art Review. Accessed
November 29, 2014. http://www.haberarts.com/rfrank.htm.
6.) Mason, John E. "Good Poor Kids Gone Wrong: The Backstory to Gordon Parks’ “Harlem
Gang Leader”." Accessed November 29, 2014. Good Poor Kids Gone Wrong: The Backstory to Gordon
Parks’ “Harlem Gang Leader”. http://www.virginia.edu/artmuseum/pdf/mason-parks-online-essay.pdf
7.) Paul, Stella. “Abstract Expressionism.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abex/hd_abex.htm October
2004. Accessed November 29, 2014.
8.) "The Second Great Migration." AAME. Accessed November 29, 2014.
9.) Todd, James G. "Art Terms." MoMA.org. 2009. Accessed November 29, 2014.