In 1952, Ralph Ellison’s searing first novel, Invisible Man, transformed the landscape of literature, winning the National Book Award for its raw, hallucinatory story of the Black experience during segregation. Narrated by an unidentified Black man coming of age in the American South before traveling to Harlem during the Great Migration, Ellison pens a painful tale of disillusionment that stands as one of the greatest works of the 20th century.
Invisible Man paralleled Ellison’s journey but it was not an autobiographical work. Rather, it was an “attempt at a major novel,” as he told the Paris Review in 1955, driven by his concerns with art. Like writers Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Miguel Cervantes, Mark Twain, and painter Francisco Goya, Ellison recognized no distinctions between protest and art.
It was a philosophy that served Ellison well, no matter his medium of choice. From the 1930s until his death in 1994, Ellison maintained an extensive photography practice that has gone largely unseen until now. The new book, Ralph Ellison: Photographer, brings together over 130 images that explore the ways Ellison used the camera as a tool of artistic expression, invention, and experimentation.
While renowned as a writer, Ellison saw himself as an artist, working across visual, literary, and musical forms with the practiced eye of a storyteller. “Photography provided his imagination with a vital point of entry into the world, another way of making an artistic record of what stimulated and affected him so,” writes Adam Bradley in the book.
“Perhaps it also offered a retreat from the demands of public life. From the 1960s until his final years, Ellison was sometimes dogged by his fame and the public’s—as well as his own—high expectations for his second novel. In photography…he seems to have found an expressive vehicle for his restless imagination and impulse to play.”
“It was no more incongruous, as seen from our own particular perspective in this land of incongruities for young Negro Oklahomans to projects themselves as Renaissance men than for white Mississippians to see themselves as ancient Greeks or noblemen out of Sir Walter Raleigh,” Ellison wrote in 1936.
That July, Ellison moved to New York so he could earn the money needed to cover his senior year at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he was studying music. The day after he arrived he met writers Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, an encounter that transformed his life.
Ellison remained in New York, becoming a part of the flourishing community of artists, writers, and intellectuals. In 1947, he teamed up with a rising photographer named Gordon Parks to collaborate on a story titled “Harlem is Nowhere” centered around the Lafargue Clinic the first nonsegregated psychiatric clinic in the city.
The two quickly became close friends, each mentoring the other in their respective arts. Throughout Ellison’s life, photography played many roles, alternately functioning as a hobby, source of income, sketchbook, creative outlet, and visual diary to record his impressions and ideas about life.
In this way, Ellison could render visible all that had been erased, much in the same he had done by giving a disembodied voice form in his groundbreaking novel, Invisible Man. No matter his weapon of choice, Ellison understood art’s ability to transform our relationship to reality.
“I am an invisible man,” Ellison wrote. “No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”