Undercover police breaking down a door

When Crime Photography Started to See Color

Six decades ago, Gordon Parks, Life magazine’s first black photographer, revolutionized what a crime photo could look like. A new book reexamines one of his most powerful and prescient projects.

Photography: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957, by Gordon Parks, published by Steidl

In 1957, Life magazine sent one of its star photographers on a sprawling assignment: six weeks in four of America’s biggest cities to capture scenes of urban crime. The photographer was Gordon Parks, for 20 years the only black photographer on Life’s staff, and he later described the assignment like this: “I rode with detectives through shadowy districts, climbed fire escapes, broke through windows and doors with them. Brutality was rampant. Violent death showed up from dawn to dawn.”

The story, titled “The Atmosphere of Crime,” was both prescient and incisive, the text that accompanied it a systematic dismantling of the dubious statistics that fueled white Americans’ growing sense that an immense crime wave was upon them. And Parks’s pictures? Cinematic, intense, and exquisitely composed, they did nothing less than revolutionize what a “crime photo” could look like. But they also exposed issues that would animate mass protests years later: the trip-wire tension between race and law enforcement, the relationship between poverty and mass incarceration, the gulf between what we see and what we think we see.

Although Parks returned with more than 300 pictures, only 12 were used to illustrate the Life article. A new photography book, The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957, revisits the assignment and includes 47 outtakes from Parks’s original shoot—pictures that have never been published before. These are not only the most beautiful crime photos you have ever seen, but, quite possibly, the most important.

Parks shot this scene to be heavy on atmosphere and light on details: What exactly is the crime here? Why is the woman huddled by the window? Why is the suspect still holding a lit cigarette?

The additional pictures—uncropped and gorgeously printed—widen our view considerably to the full story that Parks sought to tell of his six-week shoot. Along with the “new” photos, the book provides a page-by-page reproduction of the original Life story—complete with ads for Haggar slacks, Gleem toothpaste, and Ford’s new Edsel—as well as three illuminating essays, including one from Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy and a longtime advocate for judicial and prison reform. (Peter Kunhardt Jr., the executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, and the driving force behind the book, recalls that when Stevenson saw the photos for the first time, he looked up and said, “This is everything that I do and see and feel and think.”)

In the days before COVID-19, the images were to be the centerpiece of an installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It’s extraordinary, says Sarah Meister, who curated the MoMA installation and edited the book, for a magazine story to anchor a showing like this but, “Parks was really allowing for a more nuanced view of crime than I think had ever been captured in photography before that.”

More nuanced, yes; more artistic, for sure. But also more conscious that the images would be consumed by millions of white-picket-fence readers, casually flipping between stories about a new Russian missile threat and whether teenagers should “go steady or play the field.” “It’s clear,” Stevenson writes in his essay, “that he wanted to use his camera to complicate the view held by most Americans.” Until that point, crime photos had been predominantly rendered in black and white—literally in black-and-white film, but also communicating a hyper-clear sense of who was victim and who was criminal, as well as bolstering the paternal role of law enforcement.

At left, Crime Suspect With Gun and at right, Drug Search. Parks strategically used blurring, crops, and shadows to preserve the anonymity—and dignity—of the suspects he photographed, like these two in Chicago.

Parks diverged from standard crime photography by shooting the assignment with available light and exclusively in color—which makes his police blues, cherry-top reds, and rich browns sometimes feel as if they were pulled from a fashion shoot—but he also humanized the people who wound up on the wrong side of the cops. “His criminals are rarely pictured in a way that makes them recognizable,” says Meister, who also wrote one of the book’s essays. “He intentionally uses blur and unusual angles and cropping to ensure a degree of anonymity. Most other crime photographers would want to show [the perpetrator’s] face, to expose them,” Meister says. “Parks consistently resisted that strategy.”

Yet while Parks kept the suspects in the shadows, he photographed the police in riveting detail. In fact, says Nicole Fleetwood, a professor of American studies and art history at Rutgers University and the author of Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, the new book could “have been titled Police Work.” Fleetwood, who contributed one of the book’s essays, says that Parks’s pictures focused extensively on the police—their late-night surveillance, searching for track marks,  fingerprinting—in order to illustrate to Life’s readers the interdependence between policing and crime: “His photographs show how the police profile, suspect, arrest, and interrogate people, how they bring people into the criminal legal system. Parks shows us how policing in fact creates ‘the atmosphere of crime.’”

Again and again, Parks asks us whether what we think we’re looking at is actually what’s there. The opening photos of the essay, for instance, show “youths” hanging out on dimly lit street corners. With these images, Meister says, Parks was “pointing out our biases. He’s saying, ‘I can see how that looks like a crime scene, but is there anything inherently criminal about people standing on a street corner?’” Parks, she says, “was so far ahead of his time in encouraging ambiguity as a way of destabilizing our presumptions.”

“The photos are so relevant to the times we’re living in now,” says Peter Kunhardt Jr., the executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation. “And their color—they look as if they could have been taken last week.”

Parks would go on to shoot some of Life’s most memorable photo essays, become the first black director of a major Hollywood film (The Learning Tree), co-found Essence magazine, and direct Shaft, the movie that gave birth to the black action hero. So it’s not surprising that he would bring a groundbreaking approach to this assignment. Unlike other photographers who shot crime, Parks wasn’t solely focused on the perpetrator, which is why he often pulled back to give us a wide view of the environment in which the “crime” was taking place. “I think he understood that crime wasn't just about a criminal,” Meister says, “but about economic circumstance, about the way neighborhoods are constructed, the way police officers are told to do their jobs.”

Yet even as Parks pulled back to show us the atmosphere of crime, the chaos of crime (two detectives in a seedy hallway kicking down a door), and the brutality of crime (the bloody flesh unraveling from the back of a man’s head), many of the book’s most affecting images are its most intimate, those in which Parks pulls us closer: the photo, which Life’s editors elected not to use, of a heroin needle entering an arm, the skin pinched up around it. Or the two hands extending through jail-cell bars with ominous shadows scoring the wall behind them. His photo of the guards readying the inside of San Quentin’s pale-green death chamber is contextualized by a full-frame picture of the condemned man’s paperwork; it shows both the “execution date” and the “current date”—two days to go—while also noting, in capital letters, that he is a “very sound sleeper.”

In the original Life story, this photo was severely cropped; the caption read: “The left hand of a man who knows the ropes nonchalantly dangles a cigarette through the bars of a Chicago prison. But the man’s right hand, grasping the bars below, betrays him: he is frustrated and locked in.”