About this artwork
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.Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 1952
By 1952, Gordon Parks (1912–2006) had cemented his reputation as a successful photojournalist by becoming the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine. Ralph Ellison (1913–1994) had just published his first and only finished novel, Invisible Man, regarded today as one of the most important American novels of the postwar period. That same year, these two artists and friends undertook the second of two magazine collaborations: A photoessay for the August 25, 1952 issue of Life that introduced Ellison’s novel titled “A Man Becomes Invisible.” These collaborations aimed to bring to national consciousness the black experience in postwar America, with Harlem as its nerve center.
Written in the first person, Invisible Man recounts the journey of an unnamed black protagonist from the Deep South to Harlem. It is also a stark account of America’s racial divisions and of the narrator’s awakening to his condition of invisibility within the surrounding cultures of white and black alike—a realization that no one can see beyond what is projected onto the color of his skin.
Within months of the novel’s publication, Parks and Ellison collaborated on “A Man Becomes Invisible” for Life—although the level of Ellison’s involvement remains unclear. Parks set out to create photographs that illustrate Ellison’s text, depicting many of the novel’s key Harlem scenes: passages describing the protagonist’s brightly lit underground home, his rousing street speeches, the climactic accounts of the Harlem riots, and the iconic portrayal of the protagonist ending his hibernation and emerging aboveground. The resulting images are strikingly varied, including street photography, staged images shot in elaborately constructed sets, and surreal photomontages. They hew to Ellison’s prose style, which collapsed distinctions between realism and fantasy—depictions that are true not just to Ellison’s words, but also to the emotions underlying them. Only four of these photographs were ever published in Life, but the dozens of surviving prints and contact sheets in Parks’s archive point to a larger, unrealized project.
Currently Off View
- Gordon Parks
- Untitled (Harlem, New York)
- United States
- Made 1952
- Gelatin silver print, from the series "A Man Becomes Invisible" (1952)
- 26.9 × 34 cm (10 9/16 × 13 3/8 in., image/paper)
- Anonymous Gift