In 1948, Gordon Parks was the first African American to be hired by Life magazine as a staff photographer, and he used his unique position and camera as his “choice of weapons,” in his words, to fight for social change.
For more than two decades he raised awareness of the Black experience in America in extraordinary works including 1948 street scenes when he was embedded with the Harlem gang leader Red Jackson; a 1957 photo essay, “Atmosphere of Crime,” on policing in marginalized urban areas; his 1963 images of protests against police brutality, and his 1967 exposé of poverty, documenting the Fontenelle family in Harlem.
In 1969, he also became the first African American to write and direct a major studio film, “The Learning Tree,” a semi-autobiographical story, and would go on to direct films like “Shaft” and “The Super Cops,” and to help found Essence magazine.
Now, “Gordon Parks: A Choice of Weapons,” highlights his work for Life at the Howard Greenberg Gallery’s new exhibition space on 57th Street and helps mark the gallery’s 40th anniversary. The exhibit, on view through Dec. 23, focuses on Parks’s humanistic and cinematic approach to his subjects.
“Gordon had the imprimatur of Life magazine to go in to Harlem, to work with the police, to be on all sides of the story,” said Mr. Greenberg, the only gallerist to work with Parks in his lifetime; their close relationship began in 1994 and lasted until the artist’s death in 2006.
In tandem with the Greenberg show, an HBO documentary on Parks is being released in November, marking the 50th anniversary of “Shaft.” The Museum of Modern Art’s expansive presentation of the “Atmosphere of Crime” series remains on view in the permanent collection galleries through the end of the year.
“Parks was making these pictures to complicate presumptions around criminality and representation, which was as significant in 1957 as it remains today,” said Sarah Meister, who organized the exhibition as a curator at MoMA and became executive director at Aperture earlier this year.
Ms. Meister, who acquired a William Klein image from the Howard Greenberg Gallery for MoMA’s collection, is one of many curators in the photography field who have benefited from the gallery’s longtime support of photographers and commitment to the medium.
Born in Brooklyn in 1948, Mr. Greenberg moved to Woodstock, N.Y., in 1972 where he worked as a photojournalist for a local paper and founded the Center for Photography at Woodstock in 1977, where he taught classes and organized exhibitions. He opened his own commercial gallery in Woodstock in 1981, moving it to SoHo in New York City in 1986 and then the Fuller building on 57th Street in 2003, helping to establish the modern market for photographs as art objects.
As curator in charge of the department of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jeff Rosenheim said he has regularly acquired works for his institution from Mr. Greenberg, including prints by Walker Evans and James Van Der Zee.
“Early in my time at the Met, it was a great pleasure being challenged by bodies of work I knew nothing about but that I was taken by at the gallery,” Mr. Rosenheim said, pointing as example to the street photography of Leon Levinstein, who the curator later devoted a solo exhibition to at the Met in 2010.
Mr. Levinstein, as well as Arthur Leipzig, Saul Leiter, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Vivian Maier, are among the many photographers Mr. Greenberg has championed, alongside showing recognized modern masters such as Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The enormous overhead to house the gallery’s vast holdings of more than 30,000 prints, which curators, collectors, writers and educators have always been welcome to peruse in the back room, is part of what precipitated Mr. Greenberg’s recent move.
“Our rent had gone sky high,” said Mr. Greenberg, who found a smaller, less expensive exhibition space several floors down in the same building and has moved the back-room operation and archive, at a more reasonable cost, across the street to an entire floor vacated by the Pace Gallery in 32 East 57th Street. The archive is now open by appointment.
“Howard’s always been so open in his enthusiasm for photography and it’s just become the philosophy of the gallery that we try to make it this democratic place,” said the associate director Alicia Colen.
A decade ago, Mr. Greenberg made the unusual move of converting the gallery’s structure to an employee stock ownership plan. “Everyone could own a share of the gallery, like a cooperative,” Mr. Greenberg, 73, said, noting that none of his children were interested in taking over the gallery.
While Parks was certainly well known in the world of African American culture when Mr. Greenberg convinced him to show with the gallery in 1994, he wasn’t the international superstar he has become posthumously through the robust efforts of the Gordon Parks Foundation creating museum and gallery exhibitions worldwide. The foundation has dug deep into Parks’s archive for the current Greenberg exhibition and printed a number of negatives that the gallerist had never seen before, including Harlem street pictures of youths fighting.
When Parks entered his 90s, Mr. Greenberg said he had concerns that the artist was procrastinating about setting up a foundation. “I think Gordon believed he was immortal,” said Mr. Greenberg, who was instrumental in arranging a gathering in Parks’s apartment of all the artist’s executors, his accountant, his assistant and a lawyer to begin the process.
“I didn’t want to see his work and legacy get messed up after he passed, and I felt that was a really important contribution I could make with him,” said Mr. Greenberg, who was honored to have been one of Parks’s pallbearers. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my career to know Gordon.”