on Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison and Gordon Parks in Harlem, edited by Michal Raz-Russo (Steidl/Art Institute of Chicago)
In 1947, Ralph Ellison had been working on his novel Invisible Man for two years when he was approached by an editor at The Magazine of the Year to write a feature on the new Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic in Harlem. Lafargue offered psychiatric services to blacks and whites, the only institution in New York to do so. Ellison promptly agreed and enlisted his friend, Gordon Parks, to provide accompanying photography.
Just a year apart in age, both men loved jazz and could play – Ellison took up the cornet at age eight and had enrolled in the Tuskegee Institute as a music major to master the trumpet, and Parks had played piano in a brothel to scrape up some cash. Eager to produce a telling portrait of their adopted home of Harlem, they planned to underscore the neighborhood’s character and conditions, particularly the tough times that had been continuing since the Depression and through the war. As Ellison put it, the feature would suggest “the hostility that bombards the individual from so many directions.” The editors agreed to his title “Harlem Is Nowhere.” But the magazine folded – and though Ellison published his text in a 1964 collection of essays, Parks’ black-and-white photos were not included and remained unseen.
In 1948, Parks became the first African-American to work as a staff photographer at a major national publication, Life magazine, where he worked until 1972. In 1952, Ellison published Invisible Man after seven years of rewrites and interruptions, and Parks suggested to his editors that the magazine do a feature on this intriguingly disturbing story. In the August 25th issue, the three-page feature “A Man Becomes Invisible” depicted scenes from the novel. The editors chose to describe the book as “a sometimes confusing but powerful first novel,” attributing the protagonist’s troubles to Communism. Parks must have been sorely disappointed – the magazine provided space for just four images and entirely missed or avoided Ellison’s intention.
Now, Max Raz-Russo, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, has collected and mounted a show at the AIC to celebrate the Ellison/Parks collaboration. The lost Parks shots from “Harlem Is Nowhere” have been resurrected – and finally many of his “Invisible Man” photos are accessible. Steidl’s exhibit book, Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison and Gordon Parks in Harlem, captures the rich expressiveness of their work in an austerely designed format that honors both the imagery and the prose and invites the reader to linger over the page.
Unlike those street photographers whose presence -- and sometimes whose appearance as in Diane Arbus’ case -- are intent on provoking and recording a reaction, Parks stood in the same light as his subjects and scenes. His humans are often pictured in motion, or if at rest their gazes stare out elsewhere. Some of the images in “Harlem Is Nowhere” resemble Robert Capa’s city noir shots. In one photo shot at night, a man lies dead on the sidewalk while six others stand around and another walks by, the foregrounded figures lit harshly by flash. The photos are darkly printed – the black areas (such as the back of a policeman’s uniform) admit no light. Ellison’s accompanying caption reads:
Individual failures when taken as proof of inferiority of all Negroes, injure entire group as vitally as man who has been struck by car. To protect oneself from casual violence and to assert one’s individuality, one learns to turn one’s head.
Raz-Russo includes the original typescript pages of the entire “Harlem Is Nowhere” essay with Ellison’s jotted edits. He also gives us the Life magazine cover for August 25, 1952 and the three-page spread for “A Man Becomes Invisible.”
Richard Wright helped to establish the Lafargue Clinic because of what he recognized as “an almost total lack of community services to cope with the problems of Harlem’s individuals.” But Parks’ photos don’t suggest that the clinic’s patients are overcoming their hardships. When Parks provided a shot of garbage cans scattered on a street, Ellison wrote that such an environment “stinks and fouls the inner landscape of the mind” and “second-class citizenship among black Americans leads to a general condition that is, or approaches, collective insanity.” For “Harlem Is Nowhere,” Ellison provided Parks with a shooting script and a request that the photos comprise both document and symbol. But the onus was on Parks to discover and frame the images. Remarkably, the resulting photo-essays communicate the passionate visions of both artists such that one cannot be separated from the other.
[Published June 28, 2016. 166 pages, 79 images, $45.00 large format hardcover. Text by Michal Raz-Russo and jean-Christophe Cloutier, introduction by Matthew S. Witkovsky and John F. Callahan, foreword by Peter W. Kunhardt and Douglas Druick]