Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison’s Collaborative Visions of Harlem

Essays

TOP PHOTO: Gordon Parks, contact sheet, “A Man Becomes Invisible,” Life story no. 36997, (1952) (image courtesy The Gordon Parks Foundation)

CHICAGO — Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison, two of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists, shared a vision of what it meant to be black in the US. Parks, a photographer and filmmaker, and Ellison, a novelist and essayist, collaborated twice on projects that revealed, through words and images, what they believed to be essential aspects of the African American condition. Although the collaborations differed in form, the sensibility that animated them was the same, and so was the setting — Harlem.

The two men were well matched: magnificently talented, hugely ambitious, and, in their mid-30s, still relatively young. Born a year apart, in a part of the country that was more southern than western, as far as racial mores were concerned, Parks and Ellison were outsiders to Harlem. (Parks was from southeast Kansas, less than 100 miles from the border with Oklahoma, Ellison’s home state.) Parks’s first encounter with Harlem was traumatic. He arrived in the middle of the Great Depression almost penniless and knowing not a soul. The people that he saw on the streets “seemed troubled and melancholy,” he wrote in his first memoir. “I found that, in spite of my color, I was a stranger here. … It was like being cast upon an island with kinfolk who had suddenly become alien.” New York and Harlem excited Ellison, but even he, in an unpublished manuscript, wrote about the “shock of transition” that he felt after leaving Alabama, where he had been in college, for the city.

By the time they began work on the first of their collaborations in 1948, Parks had established himself as a successful freelance photographer and was living with his family in suburban Westchester County. Ellison, still in Harlem, was beginning to make a mark on the city’s literary scene. But the men’s ambivalence about the densely packed neighborhood in upper Manhattan stayed with them. For Parks and Ellison, Harlem was “the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth,” as Ellison put it in an essay that he wrote for the first project in which they set out to illustrate contemporary life in the neighborhood. Although he elsewhere spoke of Harlem’s strengths, in these collaborations he employed it as a nightmarish metaphor for the black experience writ large, a place where ordinary life was “indistinguishable from the distorted images that appear in dreams.”

Neither of the collaborations was published in the form that their creators had planned. ’48: The Magazine of the Year, the small literary publication that commissioned the first, folded before Parks and Ellison’s photo essay could appear. Although Parks retained his prints and negatives, Ellison lost control of his text, “Harlem is Nowhere,” during lengthy bankruptcy proceedings. When the essay appeared in Shadow and Act, a 1964 collection of Ellison’s writings, it did so without images. Later that same year, Harper’s magazine published the essay with photographs, but they were by Roy DeCarava, a renowned African American photographer whose attitude toward Harlem was distinctly less pessimistic than Parks’s.

The second project, “A Man Becomes Invisible,” appeared as anticipated in Life magazine in 1952, shortly after Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, was published to great acclaim. The piece, however, was probably a truncated version of what Parks, who by this time had become a member of the magazine’s staff, had hoped to achieve. Instead of the expansive visualization of Ellison’s novel that Parks imagined, his editors gave the feature only three pages, too few to do the book justice.

Despite Parks and Ellison’s inability to bring the projects fully to life, they represent significant moments in the history of American arts and letters, as Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem, an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, and its catalogue make clear. Bringing the projects together for the first time, curator Michal Raz-Russo traces the visual and literary ideas that link the men and their work before, during, and long after their collaborations. “Harlem Is Nowhere” offers viewers a glimpse of Parks at an early stage of his career, when he was still developing the visual language that would make him one of his era’s most influential photojournalists and documentary photographers. Ellison, for his part, introduced themes of alienation and the search for identity that would reappear in Invisible Man. “A Man Becomes Invisible” records a fascinating, if incomplete, effort by Parks to interpret Ellison’s novel in a different medium. Crucially, both collaborations were aimed at mostly white audiences.

Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem includes many of the published and unpublished photographs by Parks and written materials by Ellison that were a part of the two collaborations or that are related to them. Over 50 vintage darkroom prints represent Parks’s work in Harlem, beginning with the early 1940s, when he was on the staff of the Office of War Information (which had absorbed the staff of the Farm Security Administration’s famous documentary office), and ending with “A Man Becomes Invisible.” Ellison is represented by a draft of the text for “Harlem Is Nowhere” and handwritten notes, dating from 1944 or 1945, that eventually became the opening passage of Invisible Man. The least known texts on display are Ellison’s captions for Parks’s “Harlem Is Nowhere” photographs, which were recently rediscovered by Jean-Christophe Cloutier, who contributes an essay to the catalogue. The exhibition unites the captions with the images that they describe for the first time since 1948.

Early in his text for “Harlem Is Nowhere,” Ellison writes about Harlem’s crime, “crumbling buildings,” and “vermin-infested rooms.” But he and his partner were less concerned with violence and physical decay than with the psychological condition of the people who endured them. The Harlem these men saw was a place of outward suffering and internal turmoil, a home to pathologies of the body and of the mind. They believed that anxiety and confusion characterized the inner lives of its residents, many of whom found solace in alcohol or drugs or in what Ellison called “strange hysterical forms of religion.” Although the men acknowledged that the roots of the individual psychoses that Harlemites experienced were to be found in racism — a “sickness of the social order,” according to Ellison — the project explored the suffering of individuals rather than the maladies of racial segregation and discrimination that afflicted society as a whole.

In his catalogue essay, Cloutier shows that Parks worked so closely with Ellison when he made his photographs for “Harlem Is Nowhere” that they both mirrored and shaped Ellison’s text. Yet it was far easier for Ellison to describe inner states of individuals in words than it was for Parks to capture them on film. Photographs are literally superficial. Parks’s images show viewers the surface of things: a dark alley, a couple arguing, drunks passed out on a curb, a bloodied corpse on a sidewalk. But Parks cannot tell viewers why these things happened or what they mean. A photograph’s meaning is always elusive, always shaped by the context in which it is seen and the attitudes of those who see it. Photographs can certainly suggest the meaning of an event or the psychological state of an individual, but they necessarily suggest other things as well. In his best work (and there is plenty of it), Parks compensated for photography’s limitations by concentrating his attention on a single person, family, or group, and by devoting a lengthy period of time to the project. His photographs for “Harlem Is Nowhere,” however, show none of this depth. People and situations do not recur. Virtually all of the photographs were made outdoors, not in homes, schools, offices, or churches, and at a distance, as if he were reluctant to engage with his subjects. They offer spectacle, not understanding.

Ellison was well aware that photography can show, but not explain, and attempted to permanently inscribe the meaning of Parks’s images with his essay and captions. Ellison’s relentless focus on social disorder and psychological distress, when coupled with Parks’s photographs, amounted to a compendium of what historian Daryl Michael Scott has called “damage imagery.” Ever since Reconstruction, Scott argues, conservatives and liberals have used this imagery of human distress and physical decay to highlight the social and psychological pathologies of African Americans. The two political camps had quite different aims. Conservatives insisted that these pathologies disqualified black people from enjoying the full rights of citizenship. Liberals, Scott shows, “used damage imagery to play upon the sympathies of the white middle class. Oppression was wrong … because it damaged personalities, and changes had to be made to protect and promote the well-being of African Americans.” Scott uses “damage imagery” as a metaphor for texts, but it can easily be extended to photographs, especially when they are connected to an essay as explicitly pathologizing as Ellison’s.

Gordon Parks, “Soapbox Orator” (1952), Harlem, New York (image courtesy The Gordon Parks Foundation)

Ellison was writing at a time when, as Scott argues, “damage imagery loomed large” in the liberal imagination and merged with a therapeutic impulse. It is likely that ’48 magazine commissioned “Harlem Is Nowhere” because its editors shared with other liberals an interest in both the supposed psychological pathologies of African Americans and potential cures for them. The subject was almost a cliché by the time Ellison and Parks went to work. Richard Wright, the black novelist, was a supporter of Harlem’s Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic, the neighborhood’s first such clinic, and, in 1946, published an article about it. A year later, Parks himself photographed a story for Ebony magazine about a mental health clinic in Harlem that was run by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, a husband and wife team of black psychologists. Ellison’s subject in “Harlem Is Nowhere” was also the Lafargue Clinic. After detailing the damage that racism had inflicted on Harlem’s residents, he described the treatment that the clinic offered. His goals were to generate sympathy for blacks from ’48‘s largely white readership and to garner support for the clinic. Because the photo essay was never published in its intended form, we will never know how successful he might have been.

Ellison wrote parts of Invisible Man while housesitting at Parks Westchester County home, but the extent of his involvement in “A Man Becomes Invisible,” Parks’s visualization of the novel, is unknown. Neither he nor Parks wrote about the project, and Life’s records are closed. The article’s text, which Ellison did not write, failed to capture the book’s devastating critique of American society, as well as its bitter humor. Parks, on the other hand, devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to capturing its spirit. His archive houses dozens of contact sheets and published and unpublished prints from the project. Many of the images blurred the distinction between documentary and art photography in order to invoke the novel’s atmosphere of surrealism. The Harlem of 1952 remained as Ellison had described it in 1948: “a world so shifting and fluid that often … the real and the unreal merge.”

It is clear from the opening image of “A Man Becomes Invisible” that Parks was not interested in simply illustrating Ellison’s novel. The photograph, which has become one of Parks’s best-known images, dominates the page and depicts a scene which Ellison did not write. It shows the book’s unnamed protagonist emerging from the basement refuge on the edge of Harlem to which he flees at the end of the novel. Throughout the narrative, he has been an increasingly damaged man, so badly so that his very identity has been erased. Near the end of the book, Ellison foreshadows his protagonist’s reemergence — indicative of his successful reconstruction of his identity — but does not show it. Parks extended the novel and, in doing so, suggested the hesitancy and apprehension that the protagonist would have felt as he lifted the manhole cover and looked out upon the world, as Matthew S. Witkovsky points out in his catalogue essay. (In the book, the protagonist falls into the underground chamber because a manhole cover was missing.)

Other photographs in the series reflect the themes of damage and surrealism. An unpublished photograph leaves the viewer wondering whether it is posed or not. It shows a Harlem street preacher in the midst of an exhortation that, as the newspaper he holds indicates, blends Christianity and black nationalism. Shot in a straightforward manner, it may be a portrait of a preacher who Parks encountered by chance. It might equally well be as constructed as the photograph of the protagonist in his basement lair. This image depicts a fantastic scene in a documentary style. To make it, Parks built a set which allowed him to depict one of the novel’s most arresting scenes: the protagonist consoling himself with ice cream, sloe gin, and Louis Armstrong records, while stealing untold amounts of electricity from “Monopolated Light & Power Company.”

One of the four photographs that Life chose to publish directly linked “A Man Becomes Invisible” to Parks’s earlier collaboration with Ellison. The image shows religious objects and the stuff of dreams and nightmares: a crucifix, a skull, and, as the magazine told its readers, quoting the novel, “love powders … and ointments guaranteed to produce the miracle of whitening black skin.” When Parks made the photograph in 1948, for “Harlem Is Nowhere,” it was a sharply focused documentary image of a Harlem storefront. To repurpose it for “A Man Becomes Invisible,” he blurred and cropped the image when printing it in the darkroom.

The visual style that Parks chose for “A Man Becomes Invisible” differed from the one he employed for “Harlem Is Nowhere” in its embrace of surrealism and constructed images. Yet a concern with the psychological damage that racism had inflicted on African Americans united the projects. The same is true of the texts that guided them. In both collaborations, words and images combined to create a particular and partial picture of Harlem and black America. At its worst, Parks’s and Ellison’s damage imagery reproduced and reinforced invidious racial stereotypes. In the 1960s, both men would be sharply criticized from within the black community for just this reason. Damage imagery claimed to be anti-racist by focusing on pathology rather than on fundamental human and Constitutional rights, which was the focus of the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and ‘60s. At its best, however, the damage imagery that Parks and Ellison produced offered complex, if uncomfortable, insights into the state of the black community and powerful incentives for society to address personal and structural racism.

Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem continues at the Art Institute of Chicago, through August 28. Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem, published by Gottingen, Chicago, and Pleasantville, NY: Steidl, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Gordon Parks Foundation (2016), is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

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