Lost & Found: Nearly Forgotten Collaborations Between Ralph Ellison and Gordon Parks

Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem by Gordon Parks

Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem is on exhibit May 21 to August 28, 2016 at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition features artifacts, including photographs, contact sheets, and manuscripts, that showcase the collaborations of two giants of American art and literature. More than fifty of these items have never before been on public display. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition, published by Steidl and the Gordon Parks Foundation, features a lead essay by the show’s curator, Michal Raz-Russo. In her essay, Raz-Russo directs our attention to a little-known collaboration between Gordon Parks, celebrated for his photo-essays for Life magazine, and Ralph Ellison, best known for his novel Invisible Man. To promote the novel shortly after its publication in 1952, Ellison collaborated with Parks on the photo-essay called “A Man Becomes Invisible.” While the novel received nearly immediate critical and popular success, only part of the photo-essay by Parks and Ellison was to appear in print. And in the years since its publication, few have directed critical attention toward their work together. So the collaboration “A Man Becomes Invisible” nearly lapsed into obscurity as had their previous endeavor titled “Harlem is Nowhere.”

“Harlem is Nowhere” is the other collaboration central to the exhibition. In addition to the essay by Raz-Russo, the exhibition catalogue features an essay by Jean-Christophe Cloutier. I had an opportunity to speak with Cloutier and to ask him what led to his focus on this collaboration between Parks and Ellison. As a graduate student in 2008, Cloutier was convinced that Ellison’s Invisible Man was in dialogue with the emerging superhero genre in comic books. Curious about references to comic books he found in the novel, Cloutier noticed an allusion to Dr. Fredric Wertham. Dr. Wertham directed an anti-comic crusade and authored the treatise Seduction of the Innocent based on the premise that comic books led to juvenile delinquency. While Dr. Wertham’s efforts to eradicate violence depicted in media directed at children proved unpopular and finally unsuccessful, at its core his work held society responsible for promoting the mental health of its populace. Ellison had been introduced to the psychiatrist by Richard Wright. In fact, Wright co-founded Harlem’s Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic along with Dr. Wertham in an effort to provide mental health care to African Americans at a time when those services were being denied. Patients who were treated at the clinic had to travel through what Ellison describes as a labyrinth to the basement facilities. According to Cloutier, Ellison saw the Lafargue Clinic as a kind of underground democracy, which, in contrast to the larger society, treated people regardless of race as fully integrated citizens. The Lafargue Clinic is the subject of Ellison’s essay “Harlem is Nowhere.”

usher-holding-invisible-man-catalogueCloutier uncovered the photos taken by Parks in 1948 that were meant for publication alongside “Harlem is Nowhere” in ’48: The Magazine of the Year. Pictures of the inner workings of this facility in Ellison’s mind served as documentation as well as mouthpiece. Unfortunately, the magazine went bankrupt just days before its release, leaving the images and the essay without an outlet for some time. Years later in 1964, Ellison published “Harlem is Nowhere” (without photographs and with no mention of Gordon Parks) as part of his collection of essays Shadow and Act. Subsequently, the connection between the photographs and the essays was nearly lost to history.

Interestingly, Cloutier notes that Harpers Magazine also published “Harlem is Nowhere” in 1964. This iteration, however, was published without the passages about the Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic but alongside photographs of the neighborhood. These photographs, however, were not taken by Gordon Parks. Instead, they were taken by native Harlemite, Roy DeCarava, the photographer who collaborated with Langston Hughes on The Sweet Flypaper of Life. While The Sweet Flypaper of Life celebrates the tight and gritty city, Ellison used DeCarava’s images to offer critique. Cloutier describes two photographs that are nearly identical: the first appearing in Sweet Flypaper and the second alongside “Harlem is Nowhere” in Harpers Magazine. The first picture is of a man seated on a stoop at the foot of the steps holding a baby in his arms. The man, dressed in a suit and wearing a wide brimmed hat, looks out into the street. The second is the same, except in this shot his head is down and the brim hides his face. This slight difference, Cloutier points out, makes it appear as if the man is shielding the baby. Cloutier referenced the last line of “Harlem is Nowhere” which states, “Knowing this, Dr. Wertham and his interracial staff seek a modest achievement: to give each bewildered patient an insight into the relation between his problems and his environment, and out of this understanding to reforge the will to endure in a hostile world.” This piece was published just after a young boy named James Powell was killed by police. In calling our attention to this work, Cloutier asks us to reflect upon Ellison’s deployment in 1964 of text and image as a kind of temporal collapse that bring the 1948 essay together with a 1952 photograph. It’s a political act. Cloutier asserts that this kind of use of image and text operates “above ground,” as opposed to the more subtle tactics often referenced in his most famous work. Ellison draws material from the past to release in another moment, which is what happens with this exhibition and catalogue now.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Photographs, Cloutier told me, were very important to Ellison. He had letterhead with his name appearing “Ralph Ellison, photographer.” Ellison’s papers include a photographic division and the exhibition catalogue includes pictures taken by him. Ellison saw himself as a photographer. And in an effort to refine this skill, Ellison viewed Parks as a model. According to Cloutier, correspondence between Ellison and Parks revealed how much Ellison relied upon Parks for advice about content as well as technical guidance on equipment and the like. The two men went on photo-shoots together. Many of the most recognizable portraits of Ellison were taken by Parks; meanwhile Ellison was taking similar shots of Parks—on the same bench, by the same tree, at virtually the same moment. Moreover, Ellison imagined his novel Invisible Man would be accompanied by photographs taken by Parks. Cloutier describes a shooting script Ellison wrote that reads like a set of instructions for Parks’s photography but also for his own prose. Because of his dual concern with portraying historical accuracy and allegory, Ellison directed Parks to render pictures that work as documentary and as symbol. Cloutier found in the archives held at the Library of Congress, by the Gordon Parks Foundation, by Ellison’s estate, and even in the papers of Fredric Wertham clear evidence of a vibrant working relationship and mutual influence between these men. For instance, Cloutier describes photographs Parks took of a storefront in Harlem showcasing a dream book that mirrors another taken by Ellison, which also appears as text in the novel Invisible Man.

For Ellison, photography was democratic. After all, pictures can be taken of anyone by anyone pretty much anywhere. This idea resonates even more readily in the twenty-first century world wherein cameras are ubiquitous and the control of those images and access to distribution outlets is more broadly dispersed. And the picture is a means by which citizens document nearly any and every aspect of their lives. Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem elucidates the significant ties between the artistic output of Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison and suggests the inter-relations of artists and thinkers living at the same moment and in the same city. It prompts questions about the role of art—specifically photography—and literature but also questions the modes of distribution and capacity of institutions to meet the needs of the people.

Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem is on sale now.


Valerie Sweeney Prince is the author of Burnin’ Down the House: Home in African American Literature. She is an Associate Professor of English and Black Studies, Co-Director of Black Studies at Allegheny College. This article was originally written for Free Black Space.

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