Fresh from assignments at Vogue and Glamour in 1948, Gordon Parks appeared one morning at Life’s New York headquarters, determined to show his portfolio to Wilson Hicks, the magazine’s esteemed picture editor. Mr. Hicks was initially reluctant, but he warmed to Mr. Parks’s work and the story he pitched about the gang warfare then plaguing Harlem.
That meeting resulted in two milestones: The photo essay Mr. Hicks commissioned, “Harlem Gang Leader,” would be Life’s first by a black photographer, and the first of many for the magazine by Mr. Parks. The project is the subject of an exhibition, “Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument,” at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Organized by Russell Lord for the New Orleans Museum of Art, the exhibition tracks the conception, execution and editing of that photo essay. It examines the published article in relation to the hundreds of negatives, proof prints, contact sheets and editorial notes from the archives of the Gordon Parks Foundation. Documenting complex editorial decisions and practices, it exposes the usually private negotiations between photographer and photo editors and art directors.