The collaboration between photographer Gordon Parks and writer Ralph Ellison is the subject of a new book and exhibition organized by The Art Institute of Chicago and The Gordon Parks Foundation. “Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem,” on view from May 21 to August 28, recounts the African American artists’ friendship and their subsequent working relationship, which began when Ellison asked Parks to create images to accompany his 1948 essay “Harlem is Nowhere.” In 1952, when Ellison published his groundbreaking novel Invisible Man, Parks created a series of images for LIFE magazine that illustrated key scenes from the story. Neither of these collaborative works were published as the men originally intended: The prints Parks made to accompany “Harlem is Nowhere” were lost when the magazine that was to publish them went bankrupt, and LIFE ran only four of Parks’s “Invisible Man” images in their August 25, 1952 issue. Through careful research, curator Michal Raz-Russo has assembled the images Parks made for the essay, pairing them with Ellison’s original captions, and gathered the full set of photographs Parks shot for the LIFE story.
The book also includes several scholarly essays about the lives and careers of both men, and about their partnership. As friends, Parks and Ellison walked the streets of Harlem together, the former informally instructing the latter in photography. Ellison’s appreciation for the power of photography led him to ask Parks to collaborate on “Harlem is Nowhere,” and in a written instruction he gave to Parks, Ellison urged the photographer to make pictures of Harlem that were “both document and symbol.” Raz-Russo writes, “Ellison essentially challenged Parks to make manifest the ‘psychological character’ of Harlem…. The fragments of despair and delinquency captured by Parks, combined with Ellison’s text, were meant to demonstrate that decades of misrepresentation and manipulation of images of black America had contributed to a distorted and damaged psychological state of black individuals.” This new book and exhibition also reveal that, while their collaborations were never properly published in their time, the connection between Parks and Ellison reverberated in their individual careers. “The two men held in common a desire to make visible the black experience in postwar America,” writes Raz-Russo, “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.” —CONOR RISCH
The Gordon Parks Centennial Reminds Us Why He Continues to Inspire – Reasons to Love Photography Now: Part 3 (for PDN subscribers; login required)