Invisible in Harlem

Art is often imitation of life. Art can be many things imaginative, reclusive, interpretive and perhaps even real. Ralph Ellison and Gordon Parks in Harlem, an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago is by far as real as it gets. 

Gordon Parks, the creator of cool, defined the genre of Blaxploitation films in the 1970s when he directed Shaft (1970). Prior to his foray into cinema, Parks was commissioned by the United States government to take photos and archive the nation’s social conditions in the 1940s. He then went on to be the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine. Parks was a true Renaissance man, a photographer, musician, filmmaker, and co-founder of Essence magazine. Parks’ works were rare, unbiased, and unapologetic portrayals of African American life in mainstream media.

Parks was not alone in his stance against fallacious portrayals of African Americans in mainstream media, in fact it was a matter of contention for many artist, authors, playwrights, and singers. In mainstream media the image of African Americans was limited to virtually nonexistent.  As result a skewed vision of African Americans  who are commonly portrayed as docile, subservient, inferior, and violent. Hence, this notion sparked a fuse in writer Ralph Ellison who knew the pain of being unseen far too well.

Ralph Ellison is the author of Invisible Man (1952), one of most debated and acclaimed novels of the 20th century.  Invisible Man has become an intricate part of American education and culture. The book is praised throughout the world for its use of artful descriptive imagery, and honest metaphorical theme of being black in America is to be “invisible.” Ellison and Parks were introduced to one another by fellow Harlem author Richard Wright. Both Ellison and Parks shared a commonality of sharing the true story of African American life with the world. In the essence of the Harlem Renaissance, both Parks and Ellison realize in order to properly document the histories and complexities of the African American history they had to write it themselves.

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The Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem exhibition is on display at the Art Institute through August 28, 2016, and explores the pair’s lost projectHarlem is Nowhere,” a collaborative photo essay to be published in for ’48: The Magazine of the Year, which depicted the forgotten yet pivotal Harlem’s Lafargue Mental Hygiene Clinic to highlight the social and economic effects of racism and segregation in the 1940s and 1950s. The clinic provided the underserved black Harlemites with what might be later termed community mental health care. For example, the clinic was the site of the groundbreaking Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll experiments, a psychological study that used four baby dolls, two white and two black, to observe internalized attitudes about self-worth in children. The findings of that study would go on to provide proof that enforced segregation stamped African American children with a badge of inferiority that would last the rest of their lives in Brown vs. The Board of Education.

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The photo essay was a manifestation of Parks and Ellison’s shared desire to humanize African Americans within popular American media. Both understood that the outlets to which they had access could be used as tools to legitimize their race, their work, and the works of fellow African Americans within their communities. Yet, the way in which they collaborated is what made their works so special.

Like Parks, Ellison was entranced by images. Images were a strong influence on Ellison and his writing, as well as a crucial source of inspiration. During a lecture on the research required to create the exhibition, the curator Michal Raz Russo explained that part of how she discovered some of Parks’ images was not only that the images directly matched descriptions that Ellison wrote, but that Ellison himself took his own shots that act, presumably, as examples for Parks’ final products. When approaching the photo essay, Ellison and Parks were deeply invested in how the images and text work together and how that relationship could be used to produce innovative, authentic, and investigative journalism.

The exhibition also draws upon research on “The Man Becomes Invisible,” a photo set that was featured in Life magazine. The photo set was created after the two worked together on “Harlem is Nowhere” and features images from the same shoot that Ellison commissioned from Parks when they were working together in Harlem. Parks also brings the novel Ellison’s Invisible Man to life by staging scenes from the novel, using a wide variety of photographic techniques, from immaculate sets and superimposition, to simple portraits. By the time the article was printed Invisible Man was already a bestselling novel and set to win the National Book Award of 1953.

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The exhibition is a reflective piece for fans of both Parks and Ellison. The two aimed to showcase to the world the effects of poverty, segregation, and marginalization in minority populations, and set out to do that with gripping and unabashed photos of the complexities of contemporary black life. Visually arresting photographs can be found in contact sheets from Parks, acquired by the Art Institute, including a photo of a homeless man sleeping in the streets of Harlem. Parks photographed the man at 360 degree angles, and at each angle the audience is left to infer different outcomes. Russo noted that the selection of this contact sheet was to show audiences how slightly one’s perception could be altered and how often this is done in the media and editorial processes. This exhibition demands that audiences take a closer look at photographs and further analyze media content beyond what is readily presented.

Both Ellison and Parks wanted complete autonomy in selecting the images and writing the captions in. In order to paint an authentic story and raw illustrations of Post-World War II America, which was incompatible with the commercial interests of the publications that commissioned their work.  Instead, the magazine in which “Harlem is Nowhere” was to be published went under, and Life heavily edited a photo essay from Parks that was meant to highlight the injustices urban black men faced until that message was hardly resonant. Even The Man Becomes Invisible” was placed in the back of Life magazine in a segment that was reserved for experimental photography, instead of being presented as a prominent exposé.

Although the essays were shelved and the illustrious pair parted ways, the photo essay served as a prerequisite to Parks later film projects. Parks films includes his novel turned motion picture The Learning Tree (1969), Shaft (1971), Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and The Super Cops (1974) were in their own way a response to media manipulation. Parks created positive images of African American males by displaying them as sharp, strong, heroic, and vigilantes of social justice he deviates from the 9 o’ clock news narrative of African Americans portrayed as common criminals and thieves. Parks purpose was to show a generation of oppressed people that they too could achieve, and that African Americans are not always the antagonist.

Yet, the discovery of this collaboration, especially in the current social climate, only proves that provocative and thoughtful art can make a lasting impact and give a voice to people who often lack one.

A summer series on Gordon Parks and his works is currently running at the Black Cinema House, a local minority theatre on the South Side of Chicago.


Authors:  Ashlee Jordan is a senior  at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is studying Communication and Political Science.  She currently is a UIC Radio\News contributor.  This summer she is the Editorial Assistant Intern at Facets.

Kanisha Williams is a third-year at the University of Chicago, where she is studying Sociology. She is a writer for the South Side Weekly and member of Fire Escape Films. This summer, she is the Digital Acquisitions Assistant Intern for Facets Kids.

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