How Ralph Ellison’s world became visible

Evaluating the photographs of an artist who is not primarily a photographer raises a tricky question. Do you judge the photos on their own merit or examine them to better understand the artist’s major work? For an artist like Degas, his photographs can be viewed as preliminary sketches for paintings. But what happens when the artist is not a painter but a writer?

Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, a revealing analysis of the experiences of black people in America, follows the unnamed narrator on a painful trail of disillusionment, from a small southern town to a college resembling Tuskegee Institute (which Ellison attended ). and then north to Harlem, where he finds employment with a doctrinaire leftist organization much like the Communist Party.

The book is so haunting and vivid that it’s hard to imagine a still-image equivalent. Ellison, who considered a career in photography before finding his calling as a writer, moved in a different register as he viewed the world through a viewfinder. His tenor was naturalistic rather than hallucinatory. A new monograph, Ralph Ellison: Photographer, a collaboration between the Gordon Parks Foundation and the Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust, out next month, reveals for the first time his half-century commitment to the camera, beginning in the 1940s.

Parks and Ellison were good friends, and Parks, who was far more experienced, acted as Ellison’s photographic mentor, just as Ellison guided him in writing. Ellison worked early in black-and-white and later took color Polaroids with diary-like profusion after a catastrophic fire at his Plainfield, Massachusetts country home in 1967 destroyed much of the manuscript of his second, never-completed novel. Until his death in 1994, he took the Polaroids primarily from the apartment he and his wife Fanny shared at 730 Riverside Drive in Hamilton Heights in the northwest corner of Harlem. A potted orchid on a windowsill overlooking a blurred view of the Hudson River poignantly suggests a retreat from the hustle and bustle of life.

But the thrust of Ellison’s black-and-white photography is documentary, much like Park’s. He photographed men in hats gathering in Harlem, children playing in schoolyards, a street preacher and laundry hanging on clotheslines above a garbage-strewn yard. They look like sketches in an artist’s pad. Or like photos of Degas, which only came to life when the artist took as a starting point an image of a woman toweling her back, compressing and simplifying her form and coloring her with red and ocher to create what he felt before his inner eye saw.

What is revolutionary about Ellison’s novel – a milestone in American literature – is that it detaches itself from the mundane and ascends to a flaming, phantasmagorical level that reproduces the surreal world of African American life as the author experienced it. Looking at these photographs, one feels an irresistible temptation to look for prototypes for his characters. A beautiful portrait of a young black man with a worried look down is inevitably reminiscent of the character of Tod Clifton, a charismatic leader who, to the narrator’s shock and disgust, descends to sell sambo dolls on the street. Described as “very black and very handsome” with a “square, smooth chin” whose “Persian lambswool head had never known a straightener,” Clifton succumbed to a police officer’s bullet, leading to the apocalyptic Harlem riots that caused the close book . And because Clifton falls morally before the physical fall, what looks like self-doubt in the photo resonates with the fictional narrative.

However, looking at Ellison’s paintings, I wondered if his documentary photographs served only as source material or if they were able to convey the feverish power of his prose.

It’s not easy to do, and it rarely happens. But if so, then it’s exciting. A boy lies on a concrete ledge in a schoolyard. One of his arms is held by a little girl, and the other arm is also held by someone off-screen. The child’s eyes and mouth are open, which does not appear to be fun but fright. Which is it? In another photo, a woman is arrested by police officers. She’s missing a few teeth. She might be drunk. A flash of light has overexposed the upper right side of the image. The violence of the scene seems to have seeped into the photograph itself, for there is a tear on the left side of the print. What makes these images remarkable is that they raise the troubling question that reverberate throughout Invisible Man. How can we tell what’s going on in this crazy world?

The difficulty of capturing the ongoing frenzy of the “Invisible Man” in photographs was something Ellison and Park knew well. The friends collaborated on two photo essays about Harlem that were the subject of the 2016 exhibition Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem at the Art Institute of Chicago. (The curator of this exhibition was Michal Raz-Russo, director of programs at the Parks Foundation, who produced “Ralph Ellison: Photographer,” starring John F. Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor.)

First, with Ellison as a writer and Parks as a photographer, the team investigated the first non-segregated psychiatric hospital in New York; because the magazine that commissioned it went bankrupt, the play was never published. The second and more relevant photo essay was A Man Becomes Invisible, a life story celebrating the publication of Invisible Man in 1952. The images, in which Parks (with Ellison’s guidance on staging and captions) attempts to recreate scenes from the book fall far short of his best work. Photos of a black man sticking his head over a manhole are silly. Parks was a street photographer, not a creator of staged effects. His footage, which attempts to reproduce the novel’s prologue, in which the narrator describes how he illegally tapped electricity to light 1,369 lightbulbs in his underground lair, looks like the circuit board of a lighting shop and misses it entirely , to capture the unnervingly logical reasoning of Dostoyevsky’s narrator’s monologue.

Far more successful in translating Ellison’s words into an image is Jeff Wall’s After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue, 1999-2000, a monumental and masterful recreation of a stunning (and perhaps exploding) underground abode lit by hundreds of closely bundled lights. This cluttered burrow is occupied by a lone black man wearing a white singlet and trousers held up by suspenders. He is surrounded by books, vinyl records, clothes on hangers, dirty pots and dishes, electrical outlets, boxes and old furniture. It perfectly captures the flavor of Ellison’s prologue in its evocation of stillness and madness.

Documentary photography is good at capturing the look of a time and place. Parks, along with colleagues like Roy DeCarava and Aaron Siskind, has given us formative portraits of Harlem. Ellison’s photographs complement the records. “Invisible Man” goes much deeper. It’s a poignant look at how the poison of racism has permeated American culture. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes terrifying, it conveys better than any other work of art I know the tragicomedy of not being recognized for who you are because of the color of your skin. Ellison’s photographs are eloquent and, in some cases, startling. They provide welcome new information about how he observed the society in which he lived. But don’t expect to find in his pictures the equivalent of his book, one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. If the photographic version of Invisible Man existed, the images would most likely have to be staged, hovering between naturalism and surrealism, by an artist as gifted at creating images as Ellison was with words.