by Sabrina Greig
With the recent cascade of Black Lives Matter protests last month, the exhibition Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem, comes at an opportune moment. On view for its last month at the Art Institute of Chicago, photographs from the exhibition document America’s continued struggle with racial inequality. It successfully captures the robust Black Diasporic culture of Harlem in the 1940s through the artistic partnership of Ralph Ellison, author of the canonical text Invisible Man, and the first Black photojournalist of Life Magazine, Gordon Parks.
The exhibition focuses on imagery and passages from Ellison and Park’s collaboration on the magazine essays “Harlem is Nowhere” (1948) and “A Man Becomes Invisible” (1952). Both photo essays, however, were never published. The show Invisible Man therefore showcases unreleased photographs, contact sheets, and handwritten drafts by Ellison and Parks that have never been seen before by the public. They give viewers a glimpse of the social climate that inspired the groundbreaking novel Invisible Man.
The exhibition’s subject matter ranges from socially infused black and white street photography depicting the 1943 Harlem Riots, to abstracted photomontages of urban ghettos. Select images,such as an enigmatic photograph like Emerging Man, are subtly accompanied by excerpts from Ellison’s writing printed beneath photographs on the exhibition walls (see above). The curator’s choice to merge text and photography further illustrates the artistic continuities that existed between the creative minds of Parks and Ellison.
The interplay of text and imagery more overtly demonstrates how both men inventively reimagined the sources of racial injustice in American society through the photographic medium. They playfully synthesize the characteristics of real spaces, such as depicting the first interracial psychiatric clinic of Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic, while also intertwining obscured dystopic visions of city streets submerged in shadows of dark and light.
Untitled (Harlem, New York), 1952, Gelatin silver print, from the series
“A Man Becomes Invisible” (1952), 26.9 x 34 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago
The glowing technicality of Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem. NY best exemplifies this style. It shows how the friendship of the two creative geniuses constructed an Afrofuturist aesthetic that found Black joy in the midst of poverty, racism, and urban strife. With New York’s skyline in the background, Ellison serves as Park’s muse to represent a principal scene from his novel where the protagonist seeks a safe space during the Harlem Riot. It connotes the concept that this fictive world he constructs was both a place of refuge, as well as an isolating space to become invisible from the racialized chaos of the outside world. The photograph perhaps symbolizes the contradictions of protesting during heightened moments of racial strife, where one wants to become hyper-visible to combat collective struggles, yet emotionally removed to preserve their individual sanity.
Though overtly male-centered, Invisible Man convincingly showcases the artistry of two artists who innovatively problematized the prevalent reductive representations of the Black experience in Harlem, New York. Ellison through compelling prose, and Parks through striking photographic documentation, introduced a corrective portrayal of Black culture that negated stereotypical expressions of African-Americans of the time. Doll Test, Harlem, NY is a chilling reminder of how easily white supremacy subconsciously seeped into the veins of little Black boys and girls beginning at the tender moment of childhood. Images like these introduce more complex narratives that surpass radicalized conceptions of Black culture.
Doll Test, Gordon Parks, 1947, Gelatin Silver Print,
7 15/16 x 9 15/16 in, The Art Institute of Chicago
Notes for Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1947,
The Gordon Parks Foundation.
The plethora of archival documents in the show include some of Ellison’s notes throughout the process of constructing the two photo essays for publication. In Pictorial Problem, the final sentence states, “The point photographically is, I believe, to disturb the reader through the same channel that he receives his visual information.” This strategy reveals the conceptual approach adopted by both artists. Photos such as Battered Man and Off on my Own, (Harlem, New York) are eerily uncomfortable documentations of the Black experience that American History often aims to brush under the rug.
Off on My Own (Harlem, New York), 1948 Gelatin silver print,
from the series“Harlem is Nowhere” 33.8 x 24.8 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago
Battered Man, 1948 Gelatin silver print
23.5 x 18.6 cm (9 1/4 x 7 5/16 in.)
The Art Institute of Chicago
The series of photographs present in Invisible Man at the Art Institute thus point toward an earlier form of archiving the social repercussions of racialized prejudice. Similar to role that cell phone recordings and police body cameras have played in the Black Lives Matter movement in the 21st century, Parks and Ellison understood the power of creative visions. The visual components of these recent technologies make the ubiquitous nature of police brutality and racial inequity a visceral experience for all viewers in the same manner that some of Park and Ellison’s work was revealing of similar issues. Invisible Man is exemplary of how Ellison and Parks implored an unprecedented method of documenting racialized violations of social injustice, that has finally been given visibility in the two year anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder.