“I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me,” Ralph Ellison wrote in his 1952 novel, Invisible Man. A classic of twentieth century American literature, Ellison explores the complexity of being a black man living under Jim Crow laws in the United States.
At the same time, one man was making visible previously unpublicized worlds, the world of African American experience. That man was photographer Gordon Parks, and the medium to reach the masses was LIFE magazine. Parks and Ellison were friends as well as comrades in the struggle, using art as a means to raise consciousness.
As picture magazines became a massive mid-century phenomenon, Ellison and Parks capitalized on the ability of the photograph to speak a thousand words. In 1948, they collaborated on an essay titled “Harlem is Nowhere” for ’48: The Magazine of the Year, which focused on Harlem’s Lafargue Mental Hygiene clinic to reveal the profound effects of systemic racism on the citizenry. Four years later, they reunited for “A Man Becomes Invisible” for LIFE magazine, which illustrated scenes from Ellison’s novel, the same year it was released.
As is common within the industry, neither essay was published as originally conceived; “Harlem is Nowhere” was lost while “A Man Becomes Invisible” was published in brief. A new exhibition reunites the fragments that have survived from each project on view in Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem at the Art Institute of Chicago now through August 28, 2016. The exhibition includes never-before-seen photographs by Parks from the and unpublished manuscripts by Ellison. On June 28, a book of the same name will be published by Steidl, the Art Institute and the Gordon Parks Foundation to coincide with the exhibition. .
Parks’ work reveals his ability to traverse the fictional and factual realms with an ease, grace, and dexterity that belie his mastery of the form. Taken individually, each work becomes emblematic of a people and a place in a distinct era that bridges the present and the past. This is freedom, but not quite. This is the visible and invisible effect of oppression, captured on black and white film. As with Parks’ photographs, the cumulative effect is one of a transcendent spirit that is both revolutionary and peaceful at the same time. Behold the Art of Peace and the Art of War.
In that same way, Ellison lit a flame with the written word, exploring numerous conflicts inherent in the very nature of the United States. As he writes, “Whence all this passion towards conformity anyway? Diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you will have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business, they’ll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive towards colorlessness? But seriously and without snobbery, think of what the world would lose if that should happen. America is woven of many strands. I would recognize them and let it so remain.”
All photos: Gordon Parks. Untitled (Harlem, New York), 1952. Anonymous gift. © The Gordon Parks Foundation.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.