An exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago highlights collaborations between Ralph Ellison and Gordon Parks.
Throughout the 1940s, the writer Ralph Ellison and the photographer Gordon Parks were both invested in artistic portrayals of Harlem that pushed back against the sensationalized image of the neighborhood that had taken hold in the decade after the Harlem Renaissance. Ellison’s Harlem-based novel, Invisible Man, won the Booker Prize in 1953; Parks’ documentary photography examined unseen facets of American poverty, and he was the first African-American to produce and direct major films.
Harlem brought them together. In 1952, Parks and Ellison collaborated on a feature for Life magazine called “A Man Becomes Invisible.” Released just after Ellison’s Invisible Man, the three-page spread placed Gordon’s artistic vision alongside the tropes of Ellison’s novel: racial injustice, identity, and state of the individual at society’s edges.
A new exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, on view through August 28, uncovers even greater depths to the two men’s collaborations. Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem explores the scope of their artistic interplay, which, as the Gordon Parks Foundation’s executive director Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr. wrote in the introduction to the exhibit’s accompanying book, seemed almost inevitable. The story told through the exhibit, Kunhardt added, “is about the synthesis of two different art forms, photography and writing, in the service of social change.”
The exhibit at the Art Institute progresses chronologically through the artists’ collaborations, beginning with a 1948 essay entitled “Harlem is Nowhere.” The year before, Ellison began work on a piece documenting the newly opened Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic, the first racially integrated facility for the mentally ill in New York. Ellison, like the author Richard Wright before him, was fascinated by the clinic, and saw it as a representation of the psychological trauma of racism. Ellison’s essay on the subject was commissioned by ’48: The Magazine of Year, a small literary publication. He had a clear vision for the images that would accompany his text, and sent a set of guidelines to Parks, challenging him to captures scenes that would “serve as both document and symbol; both reality and psychologically disturbing ‘image.’”
During the winter of 1947-1948, Ellison and Parks wandered Harlem together, realizing that vision. But before their work went to publication, ’48 declared bankruptcy. Ellison’s text was preserved, but no complete set of Parks’s prints survives. The Art Institute exhibit reunites for the first time what remains of Parks’s photographs with Ellison’s text and the captions he wrote for the publication.
Their second collaboration, the Life photo essay “A Man Becomes Invisible,” did see publication, but in truncated form. Parks’ visual response to Ellison’s novel crafted a portrait of a neighborhood composed not of broadstrokes despair, but of individual experiences. However, the final spread in Life featured only four photographs—barely enough to do justice by the scope of Parks’s contribution. For the Art Institute exhibit, the curators combed through Parks’s recovered contact sheets and prints, pairing the images with the relevant sections of Ellison’s text.
More than a half a century after their collaborations, Parks’s and Ellison’s Harlem projects remain a vital representation of Harlem at the time, and also a blueprint for an incisive approach to documenting a neighborhood. In his correspondence with fellow author Richard Wright, Ellison wrote that his work with Parks on “Harlem is Nowhere” would “make for something new in photo-journalism.” Parks’s photographs depict not only what existed in Harlem, but what was felt—a perspective that Ellison drove home through his words.
Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through August 28.