By the mid-1940s, Gordon Parks was a successful photographer and Ralph Ellison began work on his acclaimed novel Invisible Man (1952). It is relatively unknown, however, that the two men were friends and that their common vision of racial injustice inspired collaboration on two important projects, in 1948 and 1952.
Parks and Ellison 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.
This is the first publication on Parks’ and Ellison’s collaboration on these two projects, one of which was lost while the other was published only in reduced form. The catalogue provides an in-depth look at the artists’ shared vision of black life in America, with Harlem as its nerve center.
Book published to coincide with an exhibition of the same name originating at The Art Institute of Chicago, 21 May to 28 August 2016.
“A Man Becomes Invisible” was the culmination of their work together, and remains an important tribute to and interpretation of Ellison’s seminal novel. Invisible Man was described in Life as a story of “the loneliness, the horror and the disillusionment of a man who has lost faith in himself and his world”; more pointedly, it is also a stark account of America’s racial divisions, and of an unnamed black protagonist’s awakening to his condition of invisibility within the surrounding cultures of white and black alike. The novel quickly became one of the most acclaimed—and debated—books of the twentieth century and established Ellison as a major figure in American literature. Gordon Parks, meanwhile, was among Life’s most celebrated staff photographers, best known for his poignant and humanizing photo essays. He was also the first African American hired by the magazine. The two men held in common a desire to make visible the black experience in postwar America, and each was able to make his work accessible to the widest possible audience, both black and white—accomplishments that brought both praise and criticism throughout their careers. Less well known, however, is that their vision of racial injustices, coupled with a shared belief in the communicative power of photography, inspired collabo- ration on two important projects, in 1948 and 1952.
By the mid-1940s, Parks had cemented his reputation as a successful photojournalist and magazine photographer, and Ellison was working on his first major novel. They were likely introduced by members of the thriving literary and artistic circles in Harlem, who sought new ways of representing black life in America in their words and images— depictions that would dig deeper than the sociologically and economically driven views that had filled mainstream publications in the 1930s, and would instead reveal the everyday experiences of black individuals. Ellison had a serious interest in photography. This had drawn him to Parks, who had distinguished himself professionally while working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Condé Nast, publisher of Vogue and Glamour magazines. Capitalizing on the growing popularity of the picture press, the two joined forces first in 1948, on the essay “Harlem Is Nowhere,” for ’48: The Magazine of the Year, and again in 1952 on “A Man Becomes Invisible” for Life. Neither project was published as originally intended; parts of the first were lost, while the second came out only as a fragment that merely hinted at the authors’ shared vision of black life in America, with Harlem as its nerve center.
Excerpt from “Visible Men,” Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem