How to Photograph Harlem Like Jack Garofalo and Gordon Parks

This photo story in brief

  • Harlem is a predominantly black neighbourhood in Manhattan, New York, with a vibrant cultural history
  • Jack Garofalo created his colourful photo essay on Harlem in 1970
  • Gordon Parks took his black and white photos of Harlem streets in 1943
  • Documentary photography is important because it allows us to see how other people live their lives

Info box: How to create document photography like Jack Garofalo and Gordon Parks >>

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Harlem in New York City was a vibrant and colourful neighbourhood in the 1970s. It was also an area plagued by poverty and crime, and many inhabitants were on their way out to other parts of the city in search of better economic future.

It was at this time of cultural change that the French photographer Jack Garofalo (1923-2004) arrived in town to document the scene. He was a staff photographer for Paris Match magazine and had, during his career, photographed celebrities and rock stars from Alain Delon and Bianca Jagger to Sharon Tate and Jack Nicholson.

Jack Garofalo was known for his striking black and white portraits and photos of life in cities such as Venice, Nice and Paris. Working for the largest celebrity magazine in France meant that the subjects of his photos were often famous people, whether he was shooting on city streets, beaches or night clubs.

Colourful life in Harlem photographed by Jack Garofalo

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

This assignment to Harlem was about everyday people, however. Garofalo would visit people in their homes and photograph families – parents with their children – spending time together in their living rooms. He shot young dudes with afro haircuts browsing books in a bookshop and older women in their casual home dresses chatting with each other on a park bench. Or he would follow a woman with the looks of a model into a hair salon to document her trialling out wigs – popular fashion accessories in the 70s, along with hot pants and bell-bottomed trousers.

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

The fashion in Harlem – in July 1970 when Jack Garofalo was photographing his historically important photo documentary for the October issue of Paris Match – was all about colour and an innate sense of style. Men wore mustard yellow sweaters with loose black slacks or tight-fitting blue trousers, and blue and white, striped shirts. Women donned purple jeans and bright yellow tops. Their babies were dressed in all-white costumes with frilly hems. Teenagers might wear black and white gangster shoes and a three-piece suit with a pink tie walking the streets of their impoverished neighbourhood: people might have been poor but they certainly knew how to dress.

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

The Harlem history and cultural life

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Harlem is a large, predominantly black area in New York known for its energetic culture. During the 1920s and 1930s it was the centre of Harlem Renaissance which produced musicians and writers as well as actors and theatre companies such as the New Heritage Repertory Theater, National Black Theater, Lafayette Players, Harlem Suitcase Theater, The Negro Playwrights, American Negro Theater, and the Rose McClendon Players.

Harlem Renaissance brought Hollywood to the area with Orson Welles producing the Black Macbeth at the Lafayette theatre in 1936. The Harlem Boys Choir operated in the neighbourhood from 1965 to 2007 organising concert tours and musical education for mainly black boys in the choir.

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

The Dance Theatre of Harlem – founded in the 1960s by Arthur Mitchell, a former New York City ballet dancer – has been teaching classical ballet and theatre to generations of Harlem youth. More recently, Harlem has been home to such hip hop artists as Big L, Kurtis Blow and Immortal Technique. Hip hop dances originating in Harlem include Harlem shake, toe wop, and Chicken Noodle Soup.

Harlem is home to the Harlem Writers Guild, the oldest African-American writers organisation, founded in 1950 by writers John Oliver Killens (1916-1987), Rosa Guy (1922-2012), John Henrik Clarke (1915-1998), Willard Moore and Walter Christmas.

Harlem has also been associated, at some stage of their literary careers, with such American writers as James Baldwin (1924-1987), Wallace Thurman (1902-1934), Claude McKay (1889-1948) and Langston Hughes (1902-1967). The poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred, by Hughes from 1951 describes the people living in Harlem. Its famous first stanzas talk about the seething frustrations caused by unfulfilled aspirations:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Harlem then and now

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Harlem is located in the northern part of Manhattan island, between the 125th street and the 165th street. It was founded in 1658 by the Dutch immigrants into America and was named after the city of Haarlem in Holland.

According to Wikipedia, the name Harlem stands for a “residence located on a high sandy soil in the forest.” In recent times, Harlem has gained some popularity as a baby boy name. It appears in the statistics first in 2005, and held the 1714th position in the most popular baby name ranking in America in 2012.

The neighbourhood of Harlem in New York has traditionally been inhabited by poor people. The major ethnic groups represented after the American Civil War were the Jews and the Italians. The 20th century saw an influx of black population as part of the Great Migration, in which six million African Americans moved from the southern states into the Northeast, Midwest and West between 1916 and 1970.

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

The total area of Harlem is 10.03 km2 (3.871 sq mi) and it had a population of just over 374,000 in 2006. The percentage of black population in the same year was 40.54. In 1970, when Jack Garofalo took his beautiful photos of the Harlem inhabitants, the total population of the area was 430,567 out of which blacks made up 63.53 percent. Since then the the numbers of whites, Hispanics and Italians have risen, especially in the areas surrounding Central Harlem.

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Jack Garofalo: Harlem 1970

Some of the main social problems in Harlem are still unemployment and poverty, although it has areas with higher employment and standard of living, such as Morningside Heights in the western part of Harlem with a sizable white population and numerous educational institutions.

Gentrification looms on the rest of Harlem as well. According to the New York Times, many gas stations at prime locations have been demolished, with high-end condos and even a university campus being built in their place. Median home values are still clearly lower than those in the Upper Manhattan, however, with a corresponding unemployment rate of 21 percent.

Harlem as seen by Gordon Parks in 1943

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Before Jack Garofalo, the neighbourhood of Harlem and its citizens were photographed by the famous African American photographer Gordon Parks (1912-2006) in the 1940s. Parks was working for the Office of War Information and produced an essay of photos that are very different in mood to those of the colourful, boisterous pictures taken by Garofalo in 1970. His black and white photos capture perfectly the somber atmosphere of war time America with empty streets, serious-looking children and war propaganda posters.

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Gordon Parks went on to move into the area and to produce another photo essay on the life of Harlem, this time from the point of view of Red Jackson, a 17-year old gang leader. The story was published by Life magazine in its November 1, 1948 issue under the title “Harlem Gang Leader”.

Parks – who was born in Kansas and raised in Minnesota – was influenced in his photography by photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee who documented American rural life for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the depression-era and beyond. These early documentarists inspired Parks as a photographer because they “put him in touch with the reality of the time”, as he testifies in an interview recorded in 1964.

Why documentary photography is important

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

The reality of fact-based photography is often confronting, and by forcing us to see how others – people that we would never otherwise meet – are living their lives it has a chance to influence our own lives and the attitudes of the society at large.

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

The importance of documentary photography lies in the fact that it records people and emotions in their natural environment at a particular, unrepeatable moment in history. It is arguably a more accurate reflection of human existence than the moving pictures can ever hope to be. Unlike video, photography allows us to study the physical reality in an unknown place, and to scrutinise expressions and gestures of people frozen in time.

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

Whatever we are seeing has already ceased to exist but keeps on influencing our lives. Great documentary photography creates connections spanning geographical, temporary and temperamental differences.

Many realities

Gordon Parks: Harlem 1943

The colourful photographs of Harlem taken by Jack Garofalo in the 1970s reflect a fashion-oriented group of people but also show a more serene, domestic reality.

Gordon Parks’ photography reveals a thoughtful atmosphere rendered heavy by poverty and war, as well as a more serious attitude to life that some of the people in Garofalo’s images already seem to be lacking.

What these photo essays ultimately show us is that life in Harlem was beautiful and hard both in the 1940s and the 1970s.

In that sense they can be said to represent all places and all times.

How to create documentary photography like Jack Garofalo and Gordon Parks

Both Parks’ as well as Garofalo’s photos are a beautiful testimony to an area and a community of people. They are also shining examples of documentary and street photography at its best. Although different on the surface, they nevertheless bring out some important points that all aspiring photo essayists should learn from.

Firstly, both Garofalo and Parks made it a point to get to know the people they were photographing. Parks moved into Harlem and Garofalo lived in the area for six weeks.

Regardless who your subjects are, your photos are always going to benefit from familiarity and intimacy. It takes time for people to get comfortable with new situations and new acquaintances. In an ideal situation, the photographer will have become so familiar to his subjects that his presence is forgotten. Gaining people’s trust will also gain you access to places and situations you wouldn’t otherwise be able to photograph.

Secondly, you need to research your topic to represent it more fully. While spontaneity and adaptability are crucial in documenting the life of any community it is also important to prepare yourself by learning about the history, social structure and demographics of the area that you’re interested in.

By doing your homework you’re ensuring that you’ll be able to cover as many aspects of the community as possible. Conversely, you will also gain enough knowledge on the life of the people to enable you to make a decision to concentrate on one particular feature or a person in the area – just as Gordon Parks did when he decided to build his second photo documentary on Harlem around one person, Red Jackson.

Thirdly, you need to have experience from many different fields of photography in order to become a successful documentary photographer. Nobody is ever ready as a photographer but the more you shoot the more you’re able to respond to changing situations – and to anticipate them – both socially and artistically.

Before photographing the people of Harlem, the young Gordon Parks already had a history in portraiture and social issues photography. Parks would later move on to photograph fashion for Vogue magazine developing his trademark style of shooting his models in movement rather than standing still.

Jack Garofalo, for his part, was a veteran fashion photographer by the time he created his photo essay on Harlem, having photographed celebrities throughout the 1950s and the 1960s.

True photography is a life-long pursuit which encompasses all aspects of human existence. Technical expertise is a prerequisite for creating great imagery but it is only a starting point.

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