Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison are both recognized for shining a remarkable aesthetic light on the precarious social and political situation of the mid-20th century. Parks was a filmmaker and also became the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine in 1948, where he delivered renowned photo essays for over 20 years on everything from fashion and sports to racial segregation and civil rights. Ellison penned Invisible Man in 1952, which became one of the most highly praised and influential novels of the century.
Together, Parks and Ellison formed a friendship that is less widely known. Their collaboration consisted of two projects that highlighted their respective talents, meant to challenge and undermine the harmful stereotypes of African Americans in the media. Unfortunately, both projects hit obstacles along the way and have not been enjoyed by the public until now. These photographs, manuscripts, captions and prints are being seen for the first time in the limited exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). The single gallery room in the modern art wing may seem unassuming, but it is filled with remarkable and poignant commentary on the harsh realities of racism in 1940s America, and particularly in Harlem, New York.
The first project was to be an extended feature in ’48: Magazine of the Year titled “Harlem is Nowhere.” It consisted of a photo series by Parks and captions by Ellison that focused on Harlem’s Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic. The project was announced in the June 1948 issue, to be shown in the following month’s edition. But the magazine went bankrupt before the issue was released, despite only premiering in 1947. The AIC’s exhibit features original manuscripts of caption drafts written by Ellison and the accompanying images by Parks.
At this time, Ellison was already working on Invisible Man and the pair’s next project was crafted in 1952 to introduce the novel. According to the AIC’s exhibit, the book tells the story of the “journey of an unnamed black protagonist from the Deep South to Harlem.” Excerpts from the text served as captions for Parks’ photographic illustrations of the novel, and the collaboration was to be published in Life magazine and titled “A Man Becomes Invisible.” In the end, only four of Parks’ photographs made it into the magazine, though dozens of prints were recovered from the project.
This stunning exhibit depicts a realistic account of the harsh inequalities of black America – one that shatters long-standing stereotypes and muddled history to pieces. The collection of photographs depicts a wide range of subjects, including African American citizens of Harlem, living conditions in the city and simple street shots. Several images evoke strong emotional reactions on sight, while others serve as vague think pieces. The tie-in of Ellison’s words with Parks’ eye behind the camera produces a remarkable statement about American history, and is one that should not be missed.
Invisible Man: Gordon Parks And Ralph Ellison In Harlem is on at the Art Institute of Chicago through August 28, 2016.