By the end of 1948, Gordon Parks (1912–2006) had cemented his reputation as a successful photojournalist by becoming the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine. Ralph Ellison (1913–1994) was three years into writing Invisible Man, regarded today as one of the most important American novels of the postwar period. That year, Parks and Ellison undertook the first of two magazine collaborations, inspired by a shared view of racial injustices and a belief that, when carefully chosen, words and photographs could effect meaningful change.
The two friends sought to undermine stereotypes of African American life that filled mainstream publications in their day. They first joined forces on the 1948 essay “Harlem Is Nowhere” for ’48: The Magazine of the Year, which focused on Harlem’s Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic. In 1952, months after Invisible Man was published, they worked on a story for Life, “A Man Becomes Invisible,” to introduce Ellison’s novel. Both projects aimed to bring to national consciousness the black experience in postwar America, with Harlem as its nerve center.
Invisible Man was Ellison’s first and only finished novel. Written in the first person, the book recounts the journey of an unnamed black protagonist from the Deep South to Harlem. It is also a stark account of America’s racial divisions and of the narrator’s awakening to his condition of invisibility within the surrounding cultures of white and black alike—a realization that no one can see beyond what is projected onto the color of his skin.
For “A Man Becomes Invisible,” published in the August 25, 1952 issue of Life, Parks shot photographs that depict the novel’s key Harlem scenes. The resulting images are strikingly varied, including street photography, staged images shot in elaborately constructed sets, and surreal photomontages. They hew to Ellison’s prose style, which collapsed distinctions between realism and fantasy—depictions that are true not just to Ellison’s words, but also to the emotions underlying them.
Only four of these photographs were published in Life, but the dozens of surviving prints and contact sheets in Parks’ archive point to a larger, unrealized project. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are by Gordon Parks (1912–2006). All quotations are by Ralph Ellison (1913–1994).
The only published evidence of the sustained collaboration between Parks and Ellison is the three-page photo story “A Man Becomes Invisible,” included in the August 25, 1952 issue of Life. The magazine’s editors included only four of Parks’s most fantastical images as part of a regular feature called “Speaking of Pictures,” which offered a space for photographic reporting with a creative bent. Notably, two additional features by Parks appear in the same issue: a four-page spread on Alexander Calder’s colorful sculptural mobiles and a three-page fashion shoot titled “Campus Come-Ons,” the latter in fact the cover story.
“Now, aware of my invisibility, I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.
The point now is that I found a home—or a hole in the ground, as you will. . . . Call me Jack-the-Bear, for I am in a state of hibernation.
Please, a definition: A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action."
“My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. . . . In my hole in the basement there are exactly 1,369 lights. I’ve wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it. And not with fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more-expensive-to-operate kind, the filament type. An act of sabotage, you know.
Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin. Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible."
“A flash of red and gold from a window filled with religious articles caught my eye. And behind the film of frost etching the glass I saw two brashly painted plaster images of Mary and Jesus surrounded by dream books…. I passed on to a window decorated with switches of wiry false hair, ointments guaranteed to produce the miracle of whitening black skin. “You too can be truly beautiful,” a sign proclaimed. “Win greater happiness with whiter complexion. Be outstanding in your social set.”
I hurried on, suppressing a savage urge to push my fist through the pane.”
“For now I had begun to believe… that there was a magic in spoken words. Sometimes I sat watching the watery play of light upon [Frederick] Douglass’s portrait, thinking how magical it was that he had talked his way from slavery to a government ministry, and so swiftly. Perhaps, I thought, something of the kind is happening to me. What had his true name been? Whatever it was, it was as Douglass that he became himself, defined himself. And not as a Boatwright as he’d expected, but as an orator. Perhaps the sense of magic lay in the unexpected transformations.”
“I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.”
“I went into the crowd, walking slowly, smoothly into the dark crowd, the whole surface of my skin alert, my back chilled, looking, listening to those moving with a heaving and sweating and a burr of talk around me… feeling them, a dark mass in motion on a dark night, a black river ripping through a black land…. Moving on through the sound of sirens and burglar alarms to be swept into a swifter crowd and pushed along, half-running, half-walking…. I moved, feeling as though a huge force was on the point of bursting.”
“Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.
“Ah,” I can hear you say, “so it was all a build-up to bore us with his buggy jiving. He only wanted us to listen to him rave!” But only partially true: Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:
Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"
Gordon Parks was born into poverty and segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1912. An itinerant laborer, he worked as a brothel pianist and railcar porter, among other jobs, before buying a camera at a pawnshop, training himself, and becoming a photographer. During his storied tenures photographing for the Farm Security Administration (1941–1945) and Life magazine (1948–c. 1971), Parks evolved into a modern-day Renaissance man: he found success as a film director, writer, and composer. The first African American director to helm a major motion picture, he introduced the Blaxploitation genre through his film Shaft (1971). He wrote numerous memoirs, novels, and books of poetry, and received countless awards, including the National Medal of Arts, and more than fifty honorary degrees. Parks died in 2006.
Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in 1913. His love of music led him to enroll at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama, as a music major. In summer 1936 he went to New York City and befriended established authors and intellectuals who encouraged him to pursue a career in writing. He joined the Federal Writers’ Project, and began writing essays and short stories for publications such as New Masses, The Negro Quarterly, The New Republic, and Saturday Review. With the outbreak of World War II, Ellison joined the U.S. Merchant Marine as a cook. By 1945 he signed a contract to begin writing what was to become Invisible Man (1952); it won the National Book Award in 1953 but remained his only novel published during his lifetime. He published two subsequent collections of essays, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). For many years Ellison worked on a second novel, which he never completed; its central narrative was published posthumously in 1999 as Juneteenth. Ellison died in 1994.
The Gordon Parks Foundation permanently preserves the work of Gordon Parks, makes it available to the public through exhibitions, books, and electronic media, and supports artistic and educational activities that advance what Parks described as “the common search for a better life and a better world.”
The Art Institute of Chicago, founded in 1879, is a world-renowned museum housing one of the largest permanent collections in the United States. Encyclopedic in its scope, the Art Institute collects, preserves, exhibits, and interprets artworks in every medium from all cultures and historical periods.
Selection and text
Michal Raz-Russo, Assistant Curator, Department of Photography, The Art Institute of Chicago
Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., Executive Director, The Gordon Parks Foundation; Amanda Smith, Assistant Director, The Gordon Parks Foundation; James Jordan, Collections Manager, The Gordon Parks Foundation; Amanda Clizbe, Intern, The Gordon Parks Foundation.
© 2016 The Gordon Parks Foundation for images by Gordon Parks.
© 2012 Time Life Magazine for images of Life magazine.
Excerpts From Invisible Man, copyright © 1947, 1948, 1952 and copyright renewed 1975, 1976, 1980 by Ralph Ellison. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.