Ralph Ellison, Gordon Parks: Photographers

Sept 18, 2014

The photos, under the title “A Man Becomes Invisible,” were in Life Magazine, 25 August 1952, close on the heels of novel’s publication earlier that year, on April 14.

It was a coup.  Parks had been a staff photographer for Life since 1948.  And oddly — especially given the venue — the visualizations were actually stranger, more dreamlike, more disorienting than the novel itself.

He and Ellison had been friends since 1946.  Ellison began writing Invisible Man around the same time: the protean character Rinehart — “could he be both rind and heart?What is real anyway?” — is probably based on the photographer.  The two regularly roamed the city together, with Ellison learning the craft.  In 1948 the two collaborated on a photojournalism project on the LaFargue Psychiatric Clinic in Harlem.   Ellison wrote the shooting script, about a “labyrinthine existence among streets that explode monotonously skyward with the spires and crosses of churches and clutter under foot with garbage and decay…  like muggers haunting a lonely hall, quiver in the waking mind with hidden and threatening significance.”

They had wanted to publish this in Magazine of the Year, 1948; it didn’t happen.   Instead, Parks’s photos appeared in Life, Ellison’s essay, “from Harlem is Nowhere,” wasn’t published till 1964.

Sara Blair, in Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century, sees this as part of a larger pattern: Langston Hughes’s collaboration with Roy DeCarava; Richard Wright’s uses of Farm Security Administration archives; James Baldwin’s partnership with Richard Avedon; Lorraine Hansberry’s responses to civil rights images.

The humanities and the arts commingling and inseparable: a not-so-new paradigm.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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