Ralph Ellison (1913–1994) is widely regarded as one of the foremost figures in American literature. His first and only novel published during his lifetime, Invisible Man (1952), remains a seminal work, hailed as a breakthrough representation of the American experience and Black everyday life. Lesser known, however, is Ellison’s lifelong engagement with photography, which ran parallel to his writing. During his formative years in New York City in the 1940s, Ellison experimented with photographic technologies and styles to document his surroundings, with many images serving as field notes for his writing. For a period he supplemented his author’s income with work as a freelance photographer. In the last decades of his life, as he grappled with his much-anticipated second novel, Ellison’s work turned inward, and he studied his private universe at home with a Polaroid camera. Throughout his life, photography played multiple roles for Ellison: a hobby, a source of income, a note-taking tool, and a creative outlet. His photographic work from the 1930s through the 1990s reveals an artist steeped in modernist thinking who embraced experimentation as a means to interpret the world around him, particularly the representation of Black life in America. In a 1956 letter to fellow writer Albert Murray requesting advice on purchasing new photographic equipment, Ellison underlined photography’s importance to his creative process: “You know me, I have to have something between me and reality when I’m dealing with it most intensely.”
In the mid-1940s, Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison met in Harlem and eventually embarked on two collaborative projects, in 1948 and 1952. They first joined forces on an essay titled “Harlem Is Nowhere” for ’48: The Magazine of the Year. Conceived while Ellison was already writing Invisible Man, this illustrated essay was centered on Harlem’s Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic—the first non-segregated psychiatric clinic in New York City—as a case study for the social and economic conditions of the neighborhood. He chose Parks to create the accompanying photographs and during the winter months of 1948, the two roamed the streets of Harlem. In 1952 they worked together again on “A Man Becomes Invisible” for the August 25 issue of Life magazine, which promoted Ellison’s newly released novel.
Housed at The Gordon Parks Foundation are some 130 photographs and contact sheets by Ellison dating from the 1940s, the period of time during which he collaborated with Gordon Parks. Several of the images included in the collection are known to have been taken while Ellison was roaming New York City with Parks at his side, and used as studies for their 1948 collaboration, "Harlem Is Nowhere." For more information about their collaboration click here and here.
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