When Life magazine asked Gordon Parks to illustrate a recurring series of articles on crime in the United States in 1957, he embarked on a six-week journey that took him and a reporter to the streets of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Unlike much of his prior work as staff photographer at the magazine, the images were made in color using only available light. The resulting eight-page photo-essay “The Atmosphere of Crime” was noteworthy for its bold aesthetic and sophistication, and how it challenged pervasive stereotypes about criminality in mainstream media. The photographs provided a richly-hued, cinematic portrayal of a largely hidden world of violence, police work, and incarceration, depicted with empathy and candor. Parks rejected clichés of delinquency, drug use, and corruption, instead opting for a more nuanced view of the social and economic factors tied to criminal behavior. The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957 transcends the romanticized gangster film, the suspense of the crime caper, and the racially biased depictions of criminality then prevalent in American popular culture to provide a rare window into the working...
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