There’s vision, and there’s vision

I recently made my first visit to New Orleans. While attending a conference I had the opportunity to slip away and see an exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art that reminded me that while everyone has a vision… a way of seeing the world and imagining what it could be… the vision we want to communicate is not always the vision others receive from us.

For photojournalists, that conflict is inherent in their craft. Their vision is not just an internal voice; it shapes the images they make. In our contemporary environment, photojournalists can take that vision directly to an audience. Sometimes, however, their vision is altered by others who have a different vision to present to an audience.

Such has been the case with magazine photographers, including those whose work appeared in LIFE magazine throughout most of the last 2/3 of the 20th century. LIFE’s readers saw the moments the photographers captured, but not necessarily as the photographer saw them or even the full range of what the photographer captured. Readers saw the end result, left to believe that it reflected the photographer’s vision and to consider whether they agreed, or perhaps disagreed, with the vision.

That’s what makes the NOMA exhibit so unique. “Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument” focuses on a 1948 photo essay called “Harlem Gang Leader.” Curator Russell Lord has put together an exhibit that simultaneously communicates Parks’ vision and LIFE’s vision.

It was Parks’ first photo essay for LIFE. Parks gained the trust of the leader of one particular gang and then the rest of the members. Over a couple of weeks Parks got to know the gang members and made photographs of their activities from painting the bicycles they rode around on to hiding from a rival gang. In the case of the leader, Leonard “Red” Jackson, Parks also photographed quieter moments of home life with Jackson’s mother and siblings.

The exhibit shows photographs from the LIFE essay, and it features the pages from the November 1, 1948, issue where they appeared. The exhibit goes further into the editorial creation process though. Alongside the published photographs visitors can see the contact sheets that show the other frames Parks made, some complete with grease pencil marks to identify frames to print and how they should be cropped. Visitors can see that what appears to be a tight shot of two gang members fighting is just part of a frame taken from farther away that shows other members and more accurately communicates Parks’ position in relation to the action. Visitors can see how the prints were given more exposure in some areas and less in others to focus attention on details of a frame. Visitors can also see how the photographs in LIFE that focus on the gang and the tough street life of Harlem are just a part of the vision Parks saw of Jackson’s life.

It’s a reminder that everyone has a vision, but those visions occur within a broader cultural/societal context. Sometimes we edit our vision before it’s shared and other times the vision is edited by others. It’s worth remembering before concluding that someone has missed the picture, so to speak, that it might not be that person’s picture we’re really seeing.

It’s also worth the time to see this exhibit if your find yourself in New Orleans before January 12, 2014. Until then, you can read more about the exhibit on the NOMA website.

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