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How Ralph Ellison’s World Became Visible

Judging the photographs of an artist who is not primarily a photographer raises a thorny question. Do you judge the photos on their own merits or do you research them to better understand the artist’s main work? With an artist like Degas, his photographs can be regarded as preparatory sketches for paintings. But what happens if the artist is not a painter but a writer?

Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man,” a dazzling dissection of the black experience in America, follows the unnamed narrator down a painful trail of disillusionment, from a small southern town to a college akin to the Tuskegee Institute (where Ellison was present) and then north to Harlem, where he finds employment with a doctrinaire left-wing organization much like the Communist Party.

The book is so searing and vibrant that it’s hard to imagine its equivalent in still images. Ellison, who considered a career in photography before finding his calling as a writer, operated in a different register as he looked at the world through a viewfinder. His tenor was naturalistic rather than hallucinatory. A new monograph coming out next month, “Ralph Ellison: Photographer,” a collaboration of the Gordon Parks Foundation and the Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust, reveals for the first time his half-century of involvement with the camera, beginning in the 1940s.

Parks and Ellison were close friends, and Parks, who was much more experienced, acted as Ellison’s photography mentor, much as Ellison mentored him in writing. Ellison worked early on in black and white, later taking up color polaroids with a profusion of diary entries after a catastrophic 1967 fire at his mansion in Plainfield, Massachusetts, destroyed much of the manuscript of his second, never-completed novel. . Until his death in 1994, he mostly took the Polaroids from the apartment he and his wife, Fanny, shared at 730 Riverside Drive in Hamilton Heights, in the northwest corner of Harlem. One of a potted orchid on a windowsill overlooking a blurry view of the Hudson poignantly suggests a retreat from the hustle and bustle of life.

But the power of Ellison’s black-and-white photography is documentary, as is Parks’. He shot men in hats gathered in Harlem, children playing in schoolyards, a female street preacher, and laundry hanging on washing lines over a garbage-strewn courtyard. They look like sketches in a drawing pad. Or, for that matter, like photos by Degas, which only come to life when the artist takes as a starting point a photo of a woman toweling her back, compresses and simplifies her shape and colors it with red and ocher to create what he saw in his mind’s eye.

What is revolutionary about Ellison’s novel – a landmark of American literature – is that it detaches from the mundane and ascends to an incendiary, phantasmagorical plane that reproduces the surreal world of African American life as experienced by the author. Reading through these pictures, you feel an irresistible temptation to look for prototypes for his characters. A fine portrait of a young black man with a troubled downward gaze inevitably recalls the character of Tod Clifton, a charismatic leader who, to the narrator’s shock and horror, descends to peddle Sambo dolls in the street. Described as “very black and very handsome” with a “square, smooth chin”, whose “head of Persian lambswool had never known a hair straightener”, Clifton succumbs to a police officer’s bullet, leading to the apocalyptic riots in Harlem that close the book. And because Clifton falls morally rather than physically, what appears to be self-doubt in the photo resonates with the fictional story.

However, looking at Ellison’s photographs, I wondered if his documentary photography was merely acting as source material, or if he was able to convey the feverish power of his prose.

It’s not easy to do, and it rarely happens. But when it does, 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 restrained by someone’s hand outside the frame. The child’s eyes and mouth are open in what appears to be no fun, but fear. Which one is it? In another photo, a woman is taken into custody by police officers. She is missing a few teeth. She may be drunk. A beam of light has overexposed the top right corner of the photo. The violence of the scene seems to have leached into the photo itself, as there is a tear across the left side of the print. What makes these photos remarkable is that they evoke the disturbing question echoed by ‘Invisible Man’. In this crazy world, how can we know what’s going on?

The difficulty of capturing the lingering frenzy of “Invisible Man” in photographs is something that Ellison and Parks were well aware of. The friends collaborated on two photo essays about Harlem, which were the subject of a 2016 show, “Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem,” at the Art Institute of Chicago. (The curator of that exhibit was Michal Raz-Russo, the program director of the Parks Foundation, who co-produced “Ralph Ellison: Photographer” with John F. Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor.)

Initially, the team of Ellison as writer and Parks as photographer researched New York’s first non-segregated psychiatric clinic; 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. fall far short of his best work. Photos of a black man sticking his head over a manhole. Parks was a street photographer, not a stage effects creator. His shots that attempt to reproduce the novel’s prologue, in which the narrator describes how he illegally tapped electrical power to light 1,369 lamps in his underground lair, look like the circuit wall of a lighting shop and completely fail to capture the disturbing logical reasoning of the narrator’s Dostoyevsky monologue.

Much more successful in translating Ellison’s words into image is Jeff Wall’s “After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue,” 1999-2000, a monumental and masterful recreation of a stunning (and arguably fuse-blowing) subterranean abode illuminated by hundreds of tightly clustered lights. This messy lair is inhabited by a lone black man, dressed in a white undershirt and trousers held up by suspenders. He is surrounded by books, records, clothes on hangers, dirty pots and dishes, sockets, cardboard boxes and old furniture. In its evocation of silence and madness, it perfectly captures the flavor of Ellison’s prologue.

Documentary photography is well suited to depict the appearance of a time and place. Parks, along with peers like Roy DeCarava and Aaron Siskind, gave us defining portraits of Harlem. Ellison’s photos add to the record. “Invisible Man” goes much deeper. It’s a tearing look at how the poison of racism has permeated American culture. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, it depicts better than any other work of art. I know the tragicomedy of not being recognized for who you are because of your skin color. 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 photos the equivalent of his book, one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. If the photographic version of “Invisible Man” existed, the photographs would most likely have to be staged, hovering between naturalism and surrealism, by an artist as sublimely gifted at creating images as Ellison was with words.

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