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 keenly photographed his surroundings—at times alongside fellow photographer Gordon Parks—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 an artistic outlet. His photographic work from the 1940s 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.”
Published in collaboration with The Gordon Parks Foundation and The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust, Ralph Ellison: Photographer surveys this body of work, largely held as part of the Ellison archive at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Accompanying the photographs are essays by Michal Raz-Russo, John F. Callahan, and Adam Bradley that situate this work within Ellison’s broader career as a writer, as well as an excerpt from Ellison’s 1977 essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station: The American Artist and His Audience.”
Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in 1913. His love of music led him to enroll at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In 1936, he headed for New York City to test his mettle with the trumpet and earn money for his senior year. Harlem and New York fascinated, exhilarated, and challenged him. He stayed—for the rest of his life, it turned out—helped by the generous friendship of Langston Hughes, Gordon Parks and, later, Richard Wright. Wright urged Ellison to write and published his work in New Challenge. Hired by the New York Federal Writers’ Project of the WPA, Ellison collected folklore from the Black oral tradition, which would become a strong signature of his fiction. Starting in the late 1930s, Ellison contributed to New Masses, Tomorrow, Saturday Review, The Antioch Review, The Reporter, and other periodicals. During World War II he rejected the segregated armed forces for the Merchant Marine. Afterward he worked at various jobs, including freelance photography and building and installing audio systems. Over some seven years Ellison wrote Invisible Man, which was recognized upon its publication in 1952 as among the most important works of fiction of its time. A 1953 National Book Award winner, it has only grown in critical reputation and popularity in the decades since.
Ellison taught and lectured at Bard College, the University of Chicago, Rutgers, Harvard, Brown, Yale, New York University, and other institutions. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 and the National Medal of Arts in 1985, and was named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1970. His unfinished second novel was published after his death in 1994 as Juneteenth (1999) and, in a much longer volume, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . (2010). Other works include the essay collections Shadow and Act (1964), Going to the Territory (1986), and the post-humously published Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1995) and Flying Home and Other Stories (1996). Ellison and his wife Fanny McConnell, whom he married in 1946, lived on Riverside Drive in Harlem until his passing in 1994.