Masters of their fields, the photographer Gordon Parks and the writer Ralph Ellison bonded over a shared vision of using their creative talents to address racial injustice. That commitment led to the powerful, enduring 1952 photo essay “A Man Becomes Invisible.”
But that Life magazine project was not their only collaboration. A new exhibition, “Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem,” for the first time shows images from a lesser-known 1948 project of theirs, “Harlem Is Nowhere.” On view through Aug. 28 at the Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibition offers the two men’s counternarrative (the reality, that is) of the living conditions of black Americans during that time. Among the show’s more than 50 objects — the known surviving material belonging to both “A Man Becomes Invisible” and “Harlem Is Nowhere” — are newly discovered images, photographs that have never been exhibited and items that had not been definitely identified as belonging to either project.
The black-and-white photographs are vignettes of life in Harlem: street scenes of adults and children; political advocacy in real time; and imagined scenes from “Invisible Man,” Ellison’s watershed 1952 novel. The photographs are placed next to the passages that correspond with them, giving a sense of the tight collaborative process. Among the other highlights are drafts of captions for “Harlem Is Nowhere,” and images include a man in an alleyway; Harlem in literal ruin with a clinic building acting as a bright light; and a patient waiting to be seen, sitting in solitude, head in his hands.
Ellison and Parks “lived parallel lives, and they intersect in a creative splendor,” Adam Bradley, an associate professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has written about Ellison’s work, said in a telephone interview. “They both understood the capacity of dark and light, light and shadow, black and white.”
These artists were compelled to focus on Harlem, their adopted home, which despite being the center of a cultural revival during the Harlem Renaissance, suffered a great economic toll tied to the Depression. They also witnessed the mounting postwar frustrations among their neighbors, black men who had been enlisted to fight but whose freedoms remained limited upon their return home.
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