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. Photography played multiple important roles for Ellison throughout his life: it was a hobby, a source of income, an art form, a note-taking tool, and a creative outlet. 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. And In the last decades of his life, as he grappled with his much-anticipated second novel, Ellison’s photogrpahs turned inward, and he obsessively studied his private universe at home with a Polaroid camera.
Ellison’s understanding of photography in the early years of his career—as a profession and a tool—largely came from its circulation in the popular press: predominantly through photo-essays disseminated in magazines such as Life. Photographic representations of Black life, particularly those circulating in the press, often highlighted the tension between making Black struggles visible and the interest in promoting positive Black role models.
Keenly aware of these tensions and conversations surrounding the use of images in mass media, in November 1947, Ralph Ellison undertook a writing assignment that was ultimately shaped by photography. Commissioned by The Magazine of the Year, the essay “Harlem Is Nowhere,” centered on the newly opened Lafargue Clinic—the first nonsegregated psychiatric clinic in New York City, located in a basement of a church in Harlem. For Ellison the clinic could serve as a lens through which to explain the condition of Black America to readers.
In the project’s early stages, Ellison envisioned photographs as a necessary element of the essay, meaning the project would follow the photo-essay format found in the popular press. Ellison felt “Harlem Is Nowhere” could also serve to counter mainstream depictions of Black life by highlighting psychological experiences. “Harlem Is Nowhere” was thus conceived by Ellison as an intervention as well as an alternative to mainstream photo essays— or as Ellison described the project in a letter to Richard Wright, “something new in photojournalism.”
By 1947, Ellison had a serious engagement with photography as both a profession and a hobby, but rather than taking the photographs for “Harlem Is Nowhere” himself, he chose photographer Gordon Parks. It was a pivotal moment in both of their careers: Ellison was already three years into writing Invisible Man, and Parks was by then a celebrated FSA and magazine photographer (less than a year later he would also become the first Black staff photographer at Life magazine). Parks could act as a photography mentor to Ellison, and Ellison likewise influenced Parks’s own pursuit of writing.
During the winter months of 1948, Parks and Ellison walked the streets of Harlem capturing images that would bring “Harlem Is Nowhere” to life. Once shooting was complete, and a dozen or so photographs identified, Ellison wrote the essay. By the Spring, The Magazine of the Year had provided Ellison with a final layout, and a preview for the piece even appeared in June 1948 issue of The Magazine of the Year. However, in late May Ellison received a notice that the magazine is suspending publication and declaring bankruptcy. The text and photographs, Ellison was told by the editors, were now part of the court proceedings and could not be returned. The essay “Harlem Is Nowhere” did not appear in print until 1964, but never as Ellison originally intended—alongside Parks’s photographs.
The complete set of images and captions for “Harlem Is Nowhere” remains missing. In 2016, a selection of photographs in Parks’s archive at the Gordon Parks Foundation were identified as likely belonging to Harlem Is Nowhere and paired with draft captions Ellison wrote for them housed at the Library of Congress.* Seen together, the images captured by Parks, combined with Ellison’s text, act as a complex, nuanced representation of Black life.
In April of 1952, Ellison finally published Invisible Man, which became an immediate triumph. Perhaps with the novel’s themes in mind, several months later Ellison and Parks were collaborating again, this time on “A Man Becomes Invisible,” a feature for Life magazine.
Given his position as staff photographer at the magazine, Parks likely proposed and arranged the project as a second attempt at publication with Ellison—although the level of Ellison’s involvement remains unclear. Parks set out to illustrate specific passages from the novel—likely with Ellison’s guidance—scenes that took place in Harlem, using the stylistic language of the novel as a guide. With these thematic guidelines, Parks created images for many of the novel’s key Harlem scenes: the first paragraphs describing the protagonist’s brightly lit underground home; his rousing street speeches; the climactic accounts of the Harlem riots, and the iconic portrayal of the protagonist ending his hibernation and emerging aboveground (a scene that is only foreshadowed in the book). More than two dozen verified images survive from “A Man Becomes Invisible.” However, Life magazine only published four and chose instead to create their own descriptive text for them, rather than using Ellison’s own words.
Seen together, the images created by Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison during this period, many for these two projects, are striking in their stylistic range—from street photography to staged images. These photographs not only echo Ellison’s style of writing, which veered between realism and fantasy, but they also accomplish his aim of creating images that underscore the limitations of mainstream media representations of Black Americans at the time.
This article contains excerpted text from essays by Michal Raz-Russo included in Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem (The Gordon Parks Foundation, The Art Institute of Chicago, and Steidl, 2016) and Ralph Ellison: Photographer (The Gordon Parks Foundation, Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust, and Steidl, 2023).
*Thanks to Jean-Christophe Cloutier, whose extensive research on Ralph Ellison located crucial documents (in the Ralph Ellison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.) that helped make possible the reuniting of Ellison’s text and Parks’s photographs. For more, see Cloutier’s essay in Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem.