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How Ralph Ellison’s World Became Visible


Evaluating photographs by an artist who is not a photographer primarily poses a conundrum. Are you judging photographs on their merits or examining them to gain insight into the artist’s main work? With an artist like Degas, image can be considered as preparatory outline for pictures. But what happens when the artist is not a painter but a writer?

The 1952 novel by Ralph Ellison “Ivisible man,” an eye-opening dissection of the experience of Blacks in America, following the unnamed narrator on a painful path of disillusionment, from a small town in the South to an Academy-like university. Tuskegee (which Ellison attended) and then north to Harlem, where he found work for a leftist organization with doctrines much like the Communist Party.

The book is so compelling and vivid that it’s hard to imagine its equivalent to still images. Ellison, who considered a career in photography before finding his vocation as a writer, was active in a different field as he looked at the world through the viewfinder. His tenor is more naturalistic than psychedelic. A new monograph arrives next month, “Ralph Ellison: The Photographer,” a collaboration of the Gordon Parks Foundation and the Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Foundation, revealing for the first time his half-century attachment to the camera, dating back to the 1940s.

Parks and Ellison were good friends, and Parks, who had more experience, acted as Ellison’s photography consultant, as did Ellison guiding him in his writing. Working with black-and-white photography early on, Ellison later used color Polaroids in abundance after a catastrophic 1967 fire in his hometown of Plainfield, Mass., destroyed much of his manuscript. his second novel was never completed. . Until his death in 1994, he primarily photographed Polaroids from the apartment he and his wife, Fanny, shared at 730 Riverside Drive in Hamilton Heights, the northwest corner of Harlem. One of the orchid pots on the windowsill overlooks a hazy view of the Hudson River, deeply suggesting a retreat from the hustle and bustle of life.

But the purpose of Ellison’s black and white photography is to document, like Parks’s. He captures men in hats gathered in Harlem, children playing in the schoolyard, a woman preaching in the street, and clothes drying on a clothesline above a garbage-filled yard. They seem like sketches in an artist’s pad. Or, for that matter, like Degas’s photographs, only come to life when the artist, take a photo of a woman wrapped in a towel as a starting pointcompress and simplify her shape, while also painting red and ocher to create what he sees in his eyes.

What is revolutionary about Ellison’s novel – a milestone in American literature – is that it breaks out of the mundane world and rises to a fiery, illusory plane that recreates the surreal world of life. living African-American life as the author experienced. Looking at these photos, one feels an irresistible temptation to look for archetypes for his characters. A beautiful portrait of a young Negro with a bewildered gaze downcast is certainly reminiscent of Tod Clifton, a charismatic leader who, to the narrator’s amazement and disgust, sold Sambo dolls on the street. Described as “very black and very handsome” with a “smooth, square chin”, a “head of Persian fleece that has never been straightened”, Clifton succumbed to a policeman’s bullet, leading to apocalyptic riots in Harlem that brought the book to an end. And because Clifton is morally broken down by the physical, what appears to be self-doubt in the photo resonates with the fictional story.

However, in reviewing Ellison’s photographs, I wonder if his documentary photography functions simply as a source of original material or if it is capable of conveying the passionate power of the literature. his downfall or not.

It’s not easy to do, and it rarely happens. But when it happens, it’s very thrilling. A boy is lying on a concrete ledge in the schoolyard. One of his arms is being held by a little girl, and the other is also being held by someone’s hand outside the frame. The child’s eyes and mouth widen in what appears to be not joy but terror. That’s it? In another photo, a woman is in police custody. She lost several teeth. She may be intoxicated. An overexposed beam of light in the upper right of the image. The violence seems to seep into the photo itself, because there’s a tear on the left side of the print. What makes these photos so remarkable is that they raise unsettling questions that echo through “The Invisible Man.” In this crazy world, how can we know what’s going on?

The difficulty of capturing the lingering frenzy of “The Invisible Man” in photographs is something Ellison and Parks both know well. Friends collaborated on two photo essays on Harlem, which were the subject of a 2016 show. “The Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem,” at the Art Institute of Chicago. (The person in charge of that exhibition is Michal Raz-Russoprogram director of the Parks Foundation, who produced “Ralph Ellison: The Photographer” with John F. Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor.)

Initially, Ellison’s team as a writer and Parks as a photographer investigated New York’s first non-separate mental health clinic; because the magazine that commissioned it went bankrupt, this work was never published. The second and more relevant photo essay is “A man becomes invisible,” a Life story that celebrates the publication of “The Invisible Man” in 1952. The images that Parks (with Ellison’s guidance on staging and captions) attempt to recreate scenes from the book are far behind. compared to his best work. The pictures of a Black man sticking his head out of a manhole were horrible. Parks is a street photographer, not a creator of staged effects. His photographs attempt to recreate the novel’s opening, in which the narrator describes how he illegally harnesses electric currents to light 1,369 light bulbs in his underground lair, which looks like the circuit walls of a lamp shop and completely fail to capture the terrifying logic of the narrator’s Dostoevskyan monologue.

Much more successful in translating Ellison’s words into images is that of Jeff Wall. “After Ralph Ellison’s ‘The Invisible Man’, Prologue,” 1999-2000, an epic and masterful recreation of an awe-inspiring (and perhaps astonishing) underground abode illuminated by hundreds of closely grouped lights. This cluttered cave is inhabited by a lone Negro man in a white undershirt with his pants hanging by a rope. Around him are books, files, clothes on hangers, dirty pots and dishes, electrical outlets, cardboard boxes and old furniture. By evoking silence and frenzy, it perfectly captures the flavor of Ellison’s opening.

Documentary photography is great for depicting the look of a time and place. Parks, along with colleagues like Roy DeCarava and Aaron Siskind, gave us defining portraits of Harlem. Photos of Ellison added to the profile. “The Invisible Man” goes much deeper. It’s an insight into how the poison of racism has permeated American culture. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, it conveys better than any other piece of art. I know the tragedy of not being recognized for who you are because of the color of your skin. Ellison’s photographs are eloquent, and in some cases startling. They provide welcome new information about how he observes the society in which he lives. But don’t expect to find in his paintings the equivalent of his book, one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. If a photographic version of “The Invisible Man” exists, the photographs most likely need to be staged, hovering between naturalism and surrealism, by an artist as gifted as Ellison with words.

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