“Norman Jr. Reading in Bed”
During the civil rights movement in the United States in 1967, Gordon Parks published the photo essay titled “A Harlem Family” for LIFE magazine. He documented the life of the Fontenelle family, a black family in Harlem. This photo essay was published to depict the struggles this family must go through due to their poverty. Parks also created this photo essay to exhibit the suffering that this family goes through, which may not usually be in the limelight. The photo “Norman Jr. Reading in Bed” specifically was published to shed light on the subtler consequences of poverty the Fontenelle’s experienced. Through the use of contrast, tone, and symbolism, Parks tries to demonstrate the daily struggles that impoverished black families go through.
The body language is very important in this photo. Norman Jr. is lying down in bed with a blanket and pillow, seemingly quite comfortable. However, this is in contrast to the rest of the photo and this photo essay as a whole. The walls behind Norman Jr. look very rundown and are mostly broken. Furthermore, the book looks in bad condition, and the lighting in his room looks dark. Parks is trying to show that for an act as simple as reading a book in bed, the poverty Norman Jr. lives in surrounds him and is constantly affecting him. Although he looks somewhat comfortable in the photo, his surroundings tell a different story. This photo is also in contrast to many other photos that show the family in visible pain. This again highlights Gordon Park’s message on the subtle effect of poverty in daily life.
Gordon Parks also employs a sorrowful tone in this photo. This is done through lighting and facial expressions. The lighting in this photo is very dim, mainly focusing on the child’s face. His lack of facial expressions while reading the book, in addition to the dark and damaged room, create a disheartened tone. Books usually symbolize knowledge, which is seen as more hopeful, but the lighting in this picture does not focus on the book but rather on the child. This brings me to the final technique.
Parks uses symbolism in this photo through the Norman Jr. and the walls. The walls in this photo are reminiscent of a prison, and Norman Jr. is stuck inside this prison, unable to escape. Children are usually meant to symbolize innocence, which is in contrast to what the walls represent. It’s as if Norman Jr, who is innocent, is being put in prison without reason. The damaged walls surround him, and there is nothing he can do about it. This may be a commentary on the struggle it was for black families to move away from lower-income neighborhoods, and therefore they are just stuck in these types of homes.
Through the use of contrast, tone, and symbolism, Parks is successfully able to demonstrate the seemingly endless and every day struggles the Fontenelle’s and families similar to them must go through living in poverty in Harlem