How Ralph Ellison's world became visible

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How Ralph Ellison's world became visible
Before he became a writer, Ralph Ellison was an emerging photographer. Rarely-seen documentary images, gathered in a forthcoming book, reveal his lifelong engagement with the camera.

by Arthur Lubow

NEW YORK, NY.- Judging the photographs of an artist who is not primarily a photographer raises a prickly question. Are you assessing the photos on their own merits or examining them to better understand the artist’s main work? With an artist such as Edgar Degas, his photos can be regarded as preparatory sketches for paintings. But what happens when the artist is not a painter but a writer?

Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, “Invisible Man,” an eye-opening dissection of the Black experience in America, follows the unnamed narrator on a painful trail of disillusionment, from a small town in the South to a college resembling Tuskegee Institute (which Ellison attended) 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 vivid that it’s hard to imagine its equivalent in still images. Ellison, who considered a career in photography before finding his vocation as a writer, operated in a different register when he was looking at the world through a viewfinder. His tenor was naturalistic rather than hallucinatory. A new monograph arriving 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’s engagement with the camera, beginning in the 1940s.

Parks and Ellison were good friends, and Parks, who was far more experienced, acted as Ellison’s photography mentor, just as Ellison guided him in writing. Working in black and white early on, Ellison later took up color Polaroids with diaristic profusion after a catastrophic fire in 1967 at his country home in Plainfield, Massachusetts, destroyed much of the manuscript of his second, never-to-be-completed novel. Until his death in 1994, he took the Polaroids mostly from within the apartment he and his wife, Fanny, shared at 730 Riverside Drive in Hamilton Heights, in the northwest corner of New York City’s Harlem. One of a potted orchid on a windowsill overlooking a blurry view of the Hudson poignantly suggests a retreat from the hurly-burly of life.

But the thrust of Ellison’s black-and-white photography is documentary, much like Parks’. He took shots of men in hats gathered in Harlem, children playing in schoolyards, a woman street preacher and laundry hanging on clotheslines above a garbage-strewn courtyard. They seem like sketches in an artist’s pad. Or, for that matter, like photos by Degas, which would come to life only when the artist, taking a picture of a woman toweling her back as a jumping-off point, compressed and simplified her form, and colored it with red and ocher to create what he saw in his mind’s eye.

What is so revolutionary about Ellison’s novel — a milestone of American literature — is that it spins off from the mundane and ascends to an incendiary, phantasmagoric plane that reproduces the surreal world of African American life as the author experienced it. Perusing these photographs, one feels an irresistible temptation to seek 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 disgust, descends to peddling Sambo dolls on the street. Described as “very black and very handsome” with a “square, smooth chin,” whose “head of Persian lamb’s wool had never known a straightener,” Clifton succumbs to a policeman’s bullet, leading to the apocalyptic riots in Harlem that close the book. And because Clifton falls morally before physically, what seems to be self-doubt in the photograph resonates with the fictional narrative.

As I examined Ellison’s pictures, however, I wondered whether his documentary photography functioned simply as a supply of source material, or whether it was capable of transmitting the febrile power of his prose.

It’s not easy to do, and it happens rarely. But when it does, it’s thrilling. A boy is lying on a concrete ledge in a schoolyard. One of his arms is being held by a little girl, and the other arm is also restrained, by the hand of someone outside the frame. The child’s eyes and mouth are open in what appears to be not fun but terror. Which is it?

In another photograph, a woman is being taken into custody by police officers. She is missing a few teeth. She could be inebriated. A blast of light has overexposed the upper right of the picture. The violence of the scene seems to have leached into the photograph itself, because there is a tear across the left side of the print. What makes these pictures remarkable is that they raise the unsettling question that reverberates through “Invisible Man.” In this crazy world, how can we tell what is going on?

The difficulty in capturing the sustained frenzy of “Invisible Man” in photographs is something that Ellison and Parks well knew. 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 exhibition was Michal Raz-Russo, the Parks Foundation program director, who produced “Ralph Ellison: Photographer” with John Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor.)

Initially, the team of Ellison as writer and Parks as photographer investigated the first nonsegregated mental-health clinic in New York. Because the magazine that commissioned it went bankrupt, the piece was never published. The second and more relevant photo essay was “A Man Becomes Invisible,” a Life story celebrating the publication of “Invisible Man.” The images in which Parks (with Ellison’s guidance on staging and captions) attempts to re-create scenes from the book fall far short of his best work. Photos of a Black man with his head poking above a maintenance hole are hokey. Parks was a street photographer, not a creator of staged effects. His shots that attempt to reproduce the novel’s prologue, in which the narrator describes how he has illegally tapped electrical current to light 1,369 bulbs in his underground lair, look like the circuit wall of a lighting store and completely fail to capture the unnervingly logical reasoning of the narrator’s Dostoevskyan 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 re-creation of a mind-blowing (and perhaps fuse-blowing) underground domicile illuminated by hundreds of tightly clustered lights. This cluttered burrow is inhabited by a solitary Black man wearing a white undershirt with trousers held up by suspenders. He is surrounded by books, records, clothing on hangers, dirty pots and dishes, electrical outlets, cardboard cartons, and old furniture. In its evocation of stillness and madness, it captures the flavor of Ellison’s prologue perfectly.

Documentary photography is well suited to depict the look of a time and place. Parks, along with such peers as Roy DeCarava and Aaron Siskind, gave us defining portraits of Harlem. Ellison’s photographs add to the record. “Invisible Man” goes far deeper. It is a lacerating look at how the poison of racism has permeated American culture. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, it conveys better than any other work of art I know the tragicomedy of not being recognized for who you are on account of the color of your skin. Ellison’s photographs are eloquent, and in a few instances startling. They provide welcome new information on how he observed the society he inhabited. 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” were to exist, the pictures would most likely need to be staged, hovering between naturalism and surrealism, by an artist as sublimely gifted at creating images as Ellison was with words.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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