“I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind,” Ellison’s protagonist explains at the start of his novel, Invisible Man. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me … When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Parks was hired as a Life staff photographer in 1948. He and Ellison embarked on the Invisible Man project when he returned to the U.S. after having spent two years working for Life’s Paris bureau. In the end, Life published only four of Parks’s images. “The editors picked the most fantastical pictures—ones that would be the most eye-catching to readers—but the resulting spread did not convey the ideas behind the collaboration, much less the novel itself,” says Michal Raz-Russo, an assistant curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, which put on the 2016 exhibition Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem.
Clocking in at almost 600 pages, Invisible Man is essentially a series of powerful, sometimes surreal, filmic set pieces, punctuated by the arpeggio of the author’s prose. Whether or not Ellison thought of his masterpiece in cinematic terms is unclear, but he was an active amateur photographer, and had even worked for a time taking portraits of writers such as Mary McCarthy for book jackets. “In various texts and personal correspondence, he references taking photographs in and around Harlem while he was working on Invisible Man and other related essays,” says Raz-Russo. “Looking at the photographs from that time, you begin to notice that these photographs were used as sketches or studies for passages in his works, and, further, that there are references to photography and the camera throughout the book.”
Ellison’s threading of darkness and light throughout his book offered Parks sophisticated themes to play with. Many of the images in the essay are candid shots, documentary photographs of real happenings on the streets of Harlem. Others are staged scenes involving actors. “What makes the novel so powerful is the way [Ellison] weaves realism and symbolism, and it’s fascinating to see how Parks translated the prose into photographs—switching between everyday scenes of Harlem and surreal, theatrical, staged scenes,” says Raz-Russo.
The two images above depict a scene from an early part of the book, in which Ellison’s protagonist—having just witnessed the eviction of an elderly African-American couple from their home—addresses a crowd of angry Harlem residents.
In a 1955 interview with the Paris Review, Ellison described Invisible Man as “a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality. Each section begins with a sheet of paper; each piece of paper is exchanged for another and contains a definition of [the protagonist’s] identity, or the social role he is to play as defined for him by others. But all say essentially the same thing: ‘Keep this nigger boy running.’ Before he could have some voice in his own destiny, he had to discard these old identities and illusions; his enlightenment couldn’t come until then.”
The final image in this series depicts a scene that never actually appears in the book: the protagonist’s reentry into the world after time spent living in the basement of a whites-only apartment building, where he draws light from stolen electricity used to illluminate 1,369 filament bulbs. “Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light,” explains the Invisible Man. “The truth is the light and the light is the truth.”