The 1943 Harlem riots broke out on August 1, just a few days after the photographer Gordon Parks moved to the neighborhood. He considered shooting the chaos around him, but decided against it. “The police would only think I stole the camera and take it from me,” he wrote in a memoir years later.
Ralph Ellison, who also lived in Harlem, began writing Invisible Man, his first novel, in 1945; it was published in 1952. “I am an invisible man,” it begins. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
The two men became friends and developed a shared philosophy about racial injustice: If they could use their words and images to depict black Americans as they truly are—instead of as a collection of stereotypes—they could make white Americans see them as people, not just as criminals or exotic “others.” They decided to start with their own neighborhood.
Pieces of two of their collaborations are now on display at the Art Institute. The exhibit “Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem” contains photos and contact sheets from two magazine essays, “Harlem Is Nowhere” (1948) and “A Man Becomes Invisible” (1952).
“Harlem Is Nowhere” was intended to focus on the Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic, the first racially integrated psychiatric clinic in New York City. Ellison considered it a haven from racism and the alienation of northern blacks, who had been cut off from the tight familial and community bonds of the south. “When things take on special significance because you’re black,” he wrote in one of the captions, “a cold, unseeing eye seems to judge your every act. It makes you feel guilty, hostile, ‘nowhere.’ ” One of Parks’s photos is of a man in silhouette wandering through a maze of brick walls; sunlight shines through clotheslines hung with white laundry, showing the way out. Unfortunately, ’48: The Magazine of the Year, which had commissioned the essay, went bankrupt before it could be published, and most of Parks’s photos were lost.
“A Man Becomes Invisible” was published in Life, where Parks was a staff photographer, but in a much more truncated form than its creators had intended. (The exhibition includes a copy of the magazine as well as contact sheets so viewers can gauge the original scope of the project.) It’s a companion to the Harlem sections of Invisible Man, juxtaposing scenes of ordinary street life with staged photos of the unnamed invisible man’s lightbulb-lined “hole” in the basement of a white-owned apartment building. Parks pairs his photos of soapbox preachers, junk-shop windows, stoop sitters, and rooftops emerging from the mist with appropriate lines from Ellison’s novel. “Harlem, city of dreams,” Ellison’s text reads, next to a photo of a broken-down church bearing the sign citadel of hope.
The exhibition draws no obvious parallels between Parks and Ellison’s present and ours. Perhaps it doesn’t need to: 60 years later, we still live in a country where only tragedy teaches us the names of invisible men. v