Ellison, photography, and the origins of invisibility
from The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison. Ed. Ross Posnock. New York: Cambridge UP, 2005 (56-81).
Among readers of Ellison, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the benchmark for his aesthetics and novelistic style is jazz. His own body of critical writing, as well as received readings of black modernism, insist on a definitive continuity between literature and music, from which visual culture remains at a considerable, historically determined distance. In often-cited essays on such blues and jazz legends as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Charlie Christian; in remembrances of earlier jazz cultures; in the narrative rhythms of Invisible Man (which has been aptly described as “a progression of jazz breaks taking off from and returning to the bass line of invisibility”(1)): everywhere throughout his work, Ellison asks to be read as an “ambidextrous” figure, riffing on jazz and literary histories, thus responding to this American life and forging an authorial identity.(2) Indeed, critic Robert O’Meally has identified jazz in America as “Ellison’s metaphor for democracy and love” and “the answer to the complicated question of identity” in one.(3) Ellison’s work is thus taken to exemplify the apercu that, throughout their history and in response to the social conditions of their emergence, all black arts aspire to the condition of music – most particularly, the high-flying, mind-bending, magisterial flights, the hot dizzy highs and soulful lows, of improvisatory jazz.
But Ellison’s negotiations of racial history and experience in Invisible Man owe an as-yet unacknowledged debt to another cultural form with which he purposively experimented: photography. His archive (at least those portions of it currently available to scholars) includes a significant body of materials that document Ellison’s life-long, ongoing interests in photographic images, practitioners, and stylistics.(4) As he notes in the preface to Invisible Man, Ellison supported himself during the writing of the novel through his work as a photographer, producing a respectable body of commissioned portraits (particularly author portraits, for use by the very same publishers he was trying to interest in his own novel-in-progress), images made on journalistic assignment, and shots of art objects for use in exhibition catalogues. Many of his communications from the late 1940s and early 1950s – the period when he most intensively rewrote the novel and shepherded it into publication – are jotted on his professional letterhead of the time, memoranda sheets that bear the inscription “Ralph Ellison, Photographer.” Sorting through various boxes and folders in which have been jumbled Ellison’s own photographs, negatives, and prints, his clippings on photography exhibitions and series, his notations on shooting style, his working instructions to himself on the niceties of light-metering, film speeds, and image composition, it becomes clear that photography was far more to Ellison than merely a day job, pastime, or mode for memorializing private events. For Ellison, photography was no less than an interpretive instrument, a resource for critical reflection on American cultural practices and norms.
In this relation to photography, Ellison was to some extent merely one of his generation. He was, in other words, an intellectual who came of critical age in the years spanning the ambitious architecture of recovery from the Depression called the New Deal and a post-war aesthetic, both deeply indebted to photographic canons. Under the aegis of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, or FSA, a stable of photographers – including such acknowledged masters as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Ben Shahn, and Gordon Parks – produced an archive of over two hundred thousand images. During the 1930s and 1940s, this body of work came for good and ill to embody liberalism’s project of bureaucratic management of American modernity. FSA images circulated on an unprecedented scale; via their appearance in Life, Look, Fortune, and other picture magazines, they not only fed but helped spawn the nation’s distinctive post-war image culture. These photographs were, by all accounts, the most lasting and influential body of cultural work produced under the New Deal banner, and they won for photography itself a new-found prestige, glamour, and aesthetic value.
Among black intellectuals in particular, photography seems to have held something of the fascination exerted by the python on the prey it stalks. In the name of documentary reality, ethnography, or liberal consensus, the New Deal camera had (however inadvertently) distorted and reified the realities of black experience in America; in its definitive images of raggedly clothed sharecroppers, shanty-dwellers, and evicted tenant farmers, it created a new iconography of the African-American as atavistic survivor, unfit for the rigors and opportunities of the modernity it celebrated.(5) That very fact made photography irresistible to black writers as a mode of both counter-protest and introspection. Some of Ellison’s most soul-searching prose was occasioned in response to Twelve Million Black Voices (1941), Richard Wright’s photo-text study of black America, an attempt to put his own spin on FSA images of black life in the wake of the Great Migration. As Ellison composed his first critical essays and works of short fiction, a young James Baldwin was collaborating with photographer Richard Avedon on a photo-text study of Harlem, likewise attempting to do justice to the polyphony and mixed cultural resources of its expressive life. A decade later, Langston Hughes would publish his fictive story of a Harlem woman, Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), accompanied by the photographs of photographer Roy DeCarava; Hughes understood it as an antidote to two decades of dehumanizing depictions of black America.(6) In spite – and because – of its instrumentality in “exposing” the racial and class conditions it paradoxically naturalized, photography invited black writers to counter its own dehumanizing trends, to use photographic images to wrest the fullness and mystery of experience out from under the rubrics of poverty, delinquency, and oppression.
Yet if this desire impelled any number of writers and intellectuals of Ellison’s generation, it had a particular power, and particular novelistic uses, for him. Such an argument, I should note, runs counter to the received wisdom not only on Ellison’s relations with jazz but on vision and invisibility, the core concerns of his landmark novel. Embedded within Invisible Man are a myriad of images and symbolic objects that variously challenge longstanding associations between vision, knowledge or self-knowledge, and social progress – and further, implicate photography, the work of the third eye, in the failure of these linked projects. The narrator’s achingly durable hope as he is led, blindfolded, to the Battle Royal; the sense of “the veil” being “lowered,” rather than lifted, in images of the hallowed Founder of the college(7); the sightless eyes of the Reverend Homer Barbee; the summons of the veteran at the Golden Day to “look beneath the surface” and “come out of the fog” (Invisible 153); Emerson Junior’s anxious advice about “what lies behind the face of things” (188); the lobotomizing technician in the Liberty Paints plant hospital, who examines the narrator through the lens of “a bright third eye” (231); the “Cyclopean” glass eye of Brother Jack, bespeaking all he and the Brotherhood choose not to recognize (474): all these and more suggest how apparatuses of vision and insight, real and figurative, work to occlude, to deceive, to produce the expense of hard-fought humanity in the service of false and imprisoning (and racially charged) ideals. No wonder, then, that photography has been in essence written off by Ellison’s readers as an instrument of the very logic of invisibility his novel seeks to probe.(8)
But this reductive linkage, by which the camera’s eye comes to stand for the institution of photography, occludes a significant tradition within photographic practice dedicated to probing precisely its powers and effects; further, it occludes Ellison’s multiple investments in photographic practice. Close examination of his archival materials, and specifically of Ellison’s relationship to the developing history of documentary and street photography defining the cultures of the New Deal and post-war New York, suggests quite the opposite of what his published work allows us to assume. It suggests, that is, that photography serves Ellison powerfully as a resource for the transformation of lived experience into narrative, of social fact into aesthetic possibility – and vice versa. Taking Ellison’s photographic work and interests into account, in the context of their emergence and pursuit, allows us a new purchase on the complex cultural politics in which Ellison deftly engaged. In what follows, I begin to reconstruct the meaning of Ellison’s self-invention under the sign (and eye) of the camera. I thus aim to provide an alternative, or at least supplementary, account of how invisibility was born.
In an essay titled “Hidden Name and Complex Fate,” originally delivered as a lecture at the Library of Congress in 1964, Ellison offers a pointed allegory for his coming-into-being as a son, a writer, and a citizen of these United States (Ralph Waldo Ellison indeed). While “seeking adventure in back alleys” in his hometown of Oklahoma City, the young Ellison serendipitously finds “a large photographic lens”:
I remember nothing of its optical qualities, of its speed or color correction, but it gleamed with crystal mystery and it was beautiful. . . . Mounted handsomely in a tube of shiny brass, it spoke to me of distant worlds of possibility. I played with it, looking through it with squinted eyes, holding it in shafts of sunlight, and tried to use it for a magic lantern. . . . I could burn holes through newspapers with it, or I could pretend that it was a telescope, the barrel of a cannon, or the third eye of a monster – I being the monster – but I could do nothing at all about its proper function of making images; nothing to make it yield its secret. But I could not discard it.(9)
This inability to “find a creative use for my lens” is offered as an analogy for Ellison’s frustrated attempts to “master” his over-determined name – at least initially, before the epiphanic readings in T. S. Eliot that are said to impel “the act of will” by which he becomes a writer (“Hidden”156, 159, 146).(10) In this account, Ellison ultimately comes to terms with the Emersonian challenge of making his name and nationhood his own; he comes to recognize “the sacredness” of his experience as a black American, and its part in shaping “the composite nature of the ideal” national character (“Hidden” 153, 156, 165). His language also implies, however off-handedly, that he comes eventually to master the technical “secret” (“optical qualities,” film speeds, “color correction”) of image-making. The lens in question may have become “lost and forgotten,” “buried” in some lost boyhood “box of treasures” (“Hidden” 153). But the camera as an instrument is a part of Ellison’s arsenal, a complex fact of his “own hard-earned sense of reality” (“Hidden” 166).
It is worth taking seriously the nexus this passage proposes: between Ellison’s identity as a writer, struggling to articulate a place for himself in an American cultural genealogy, and the instruments of photographic looking. Readers have generally assumed that such moments in which Ellison gestures toward camera work underscore the sociological designs of the camera, its unprecedented power in codifying ethnographic and popular assumptions about “the Negro.” Visual historian Nicholas Natanson identifies the repertoire of “positive” photographic images of black Americans under the New Deal as limited to such baneful categories as “the Noble Primitive,” “the Colorful Black,” and “the Black Victim,” relieved only by such differently problematic rubrics as “the glittering Role Model” and “the Transformed Black,” with “a dehumanized ‘before’ giving way to an artifical ‘after.’ “(11) But Ellison retrospectively imagines himself behind the lens, not as its ethnographic or sociological object. In so doing, he simultaneously evades the typology of the New Deal documentary gaze and harnesses the growing power of mid-century camera work to produce allegorical, symbolic, and otherwise richly allusive effects. Like Ellison’s given name, the photographic lens represents both an inheritance against which he struggles and a tool of self-creation. Like the invisible man’s hibernation, photography as a form and practice serves Ellison as a language for the simultaneous no and yes, the affirmation that is also a form of critical challenge.
The shaping importance of photography to Ellison becomes obvious as one pursues the materials preserved in his archive. In letters, notes and other private writings, he details his ongoing acquisition of cameras and photographic equipment from as early as the mid-1940s. Not only did Ellison purchase an impressive array of cameras, lenses, and other technical apparatuses; his collection reflects – quite self-consciously – the changing styles and imperatives of documentary and street photography. From a classic Leica (the model of choice among key photographic practitioners associated with leftist culture in New York), to a state-of-the-art Pentax (favored by many street shooters for its mobility and ease of loading), to a view camera (a format inextricably linked with the classic work of such practitioners as Edward Weston and Paul Strand), Ellison seems to have experimented with their varying properties of speed, deliberation, monumentality, spontaneity, and anonymity.(12) He thereby produced a notable variety of images, bespeaking wide interests in photographic realism, the conventions of the fashion and glamour shot, experimental art photography, and street work.
I will have more to say below about Ellison’s images. Here, I want to emphasize how self-consciously he employed the camera as a tool for self-examination. Each of these different camera models, with its own attendant mythology and history of uses, allowed Ellison to pursue a different relationship to the photographic subject: that of studio professional, producing author portraits; of participant-observer, recording the daily facts of Harlem life; of avant-gardist, testing the possibilities of the medium; of sympathetic outsider, witnessing the lives of the marginalized. Ellison conducted these experiments at the apex of photography’s power as a symbol of progress and of its authority as a mode of social critique; he was as interested in the purchases on contemporary urban culture afforded the photographer as in the production of specific images.
Ellison himself left a record of this fascination with the camera as symbolic object. Always a guarded and unrevealing subject, he habitually posed for photographs and self-portraits with camera in hand. An image by his second wife, Fanny Ellison, taken in 1950, around the time of the final revisions of Invisible Man, shows a reflective Ellison in Central Park. Turned away from her camera, grasping his own – apparently a 2 × 2 view model – as if in preparation for a shot, Ellison evades the camera’s gaze by enacting the role of meditative witness or seer.(13) Other series of portraits show Ellison at work with camera and tripod, apparently preparing to shoot Fanny as she shoots him, or with camera and dog; still others are double portraits of Ellison and other writers – Langston Hughes, Chester Himes – in which Ellison’s camera again prominently figures.(14) This penchant for self-presentation as a photographer hardly went unnoticed among Ellison’s circle. By way of a Christmas card (undated but probably made in the early 1950s), a journalist acquaintance offers a triple portrait: in it, Fanny Ellison is shot from the rear, holding aloft a camera to take her own shot of Hughes and Ellison, who in turns poses in the act of fingering the camera around his neck, prepared to make a photograph of Fanny.(15)
By turns reflective, authoritative, and absorbed in the delicate intricacies of recording the lived moment, the Ellison who appears in these images wills himself into being as an artist even as he deflects the camera’s scrutiny. Of a piece with his life-long self-representations as urbane intellectual and dandy, the image of Ellison as image-maker or auteur affords him a certain cultural authority, and what we might well call invisibility: a mode of open self-concealment. That this strategy was both intentioned and foundational to Ellison’s writing life is evidenced in an admission he later made to fellow writer Albert Murray, in a letter requesting the latter’s help in purchasing new photographic equipment: “You know me, I have to have something between me and reality when I’m dealing with it most intensely.”(16) That “something,” often, was the camera, which served at once as a prop for Ellison’s self-staging, an instrument for screening contemporary realities, and a mode for negotiating the complex politics of New York’s post-war left.
Ellison himself partially acknowledges this state of affairs in the preface to Invisible Man, when he describes the genesis of the novel and the conduct of his writing life. There, Ellison figures himself akin to his own character, Mary Rambo, who admonishes the narrator, “Don’t let this Harlem git you. I’m in New York but New York ain’t in me” (Invisible 255).(17) Of “indefinite status” – the writer making his career is “neither a thug, numbers-runner, nor pusher, postal worker, doctor, dentist, lawyer, tailor, undertaker, barber, bartender nor preacher,” and thus essentially outside the complex economies of life on the Harlem street – Ellison is accused by the corner “wino lady” of being “some kinda sweetback” – that is, a pimp (Invisible x). His unreadability as writer and intellectual is not only linked with, but given form by, his activities as a photographer, as his “woozy” critic suggests: ” ‘. . . all I ever see him do is walk them damn dogs and shoot some damn pictures!’ ” (ix). It is, Ellison reveals, the presence of the camera and the pursuit of its possibilities that ensures this cherished alterity: “since I was returning home with fifty legally earned dollars from a photographic assignment I could well afford to smile while remaining silently concealed in my mystery” (x). Hiding in plain view behind the lens, Ellison appears to brandish the camera, and photography itself, as a version of Rinehart’s hipster shades. Like the invisible man’s adoption of the signature symbol of the hipster and jive, this manipulation of the camera as a cultural accoutrement is “flooded with personal significance” (482). Behind the camera, Ellison experiences himself both as “concealed” and self-inventing, occupying a found space – akin to the narrator’s “border area” (5) – of both “isolation” (13) and revealing “contact” (3).
Of course, Ellison not only employed his camera as prop, screen, and emblem of post-war cultural “fraternity” (485). He also made photographs by choice and by commission, for “taking notes” and for sale.(18) Widely varied in context and aim, his archived images are remarkable less for their quality as visual objects than for their clear interest in the available range of visual modes defining post-war photographic style. Even the somewhat random, as-yet uncatalogued, photographs housed with Ellison’s archived papers suggest a certain rehearsal on his part of the menu of representational possibilities: formalist, socially conscious, reportial, intimate. One dramatic shot shows an unidentified steel structure with a mechanical pinwheel affixed to its apex, surrounded by what appear to be parachutes gracefully wafting toward earth; it rhymes with the celebratory, highly aestheticized images of the George Washington Bridge, Fort Peck Dam, and other emblems of industrial modernity by the most recognized US photographer of the 1940s, Margaret Bourke-White. Featured prominently on the cover of Life and in the pages of Fortune and Time, this work made her the highest-paid photographic professional in the US and a household name. Alternatively, among Ellison’s images are various spontaneous portraits made on the streets of Harlem and downtown New York, sites of longstanding interest for documentary and street photography.(19) Substantial numbers of his images take children as subjects – perhaps an outgrowth of Ellison’s work collecting their oral narratives, riddles, and jump-rope rhymes in Harlem during 1940-41 as a writer on the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project, and a probable response to the emphasis on Harlem and downtown children’s cultures of photographers like Lewis Hine and Helen Levitt. In these shots, Ellison tenders subjects who return his gaze confidently or meditatively, as well as those unable to return it at all. He thus recapitulates the essential problem of post-war street work: negotiating documentary photography’s own tendency to rob its subjects of the power, the right, or the psychic means to look back.(20)
Other of Ellison’s archived images bespeak interests in the longer history of photography – specifically its evolving claims, since the influential work of Alfred Stieglitz in the 1910s and 1920s, to the status of high art. From 1944, when he met the then Fanny McConnell, Ellison made scores of images of her that probe not only her qualities as lover, collaborator, and object of visual attention, but the expressive codes of photography itself. Posed as a figure in the urban landscape, Fanny becomes the focal point of pictorialist, impressionistic photo portraits harking back to Stieglitz’s iconic shots of the city streets, bathed in the mists and glow of gaslight, industrial steam, and fog. An unself-conscious model in the nude, striking elegantly rhythmic poses, Fanny enabled Ellison to produce shots reminiscent of the famed work of Edward Weston, whose studies of female nudes in the mid-1930s achieved an extraordinary sculptural quality and an unmatched subtlety of tone. One shot of Fanny posed in front of the leaning tower of Pisa – the stuff of conventional tourist memorabilia – exploits her angular beauty and the famed skew of the structure itself to approximate the visual language of Dada and surrealist photography (as, for example, Man Ray’s famed portrait of Lee Miller). Using radical foreshortening and deft cropping, Ellison elides the disparity in scale between his subjects with distinctly graphic and uncanny effects.(21)
As a body of work, these images are scattershot and often experimental in the pejorative sense – that is, tentative or technically unrealized. But they are marked by awareness of the effects they seek to produce, and of the varying, sometimes competing photographic conventions to which they respond. Most realized among them are images that engage with the conventions of street photography, a genre of documentary undergoing radical revision during the 1940s and 1950s, as the tenets of the activist image-making of the previous decade – rooted in direct observation, an affinity for socially marginal subjects, and a commitment to social change through the impact of photographic narrative – were redirected toward a more allusive post-war aesthetic. By the time of the publication of Invisible Man, an influential group of photographers, including Weegee, Helen Levitt, Louis Faurer, Ted Croner, Sid Grossman, and Lisette Model, were coalescing into something aptly called the New York School. Highly individualist, often privileging images of marginality and loneliness, they nonetheless cohered in focusing on urban perception and the visual experience of modernity. Their varied histories as photographers of African-American, Yiddish-speaking, working-class, gay and drag, and other marginalized communities in New York contributed to new photographic styles and new ways of apprehending the city.(22) In particular, their work emphasized the tension between the physical proximity, even intimacy, of city dwellers and their psychic distance. Weegee’s Bowery alcoholics, Croner’s Times Square drifters, Model’s solitary women of the urban coffeeshop and bar: such figures collectively limn American modernity as an existential struggle – not with hard luck or poverty, but with alienation from the march of post-war progress, and from the increasingly monolithic cityscape that was its emblem. New York School photographs, in other words, take a certain invisibility as their subject, and they wield the camera not as a tool for “exposure” or “enlightenment” of the conditions that produce it, but as an instrument for heightening our experience of its psychic depths and social meanings.
No wonder, then, that black writers and intellectuals were so fascinated by the evolving history and artifacts of documentary photography. During the period between the end of the war and the emergence of a distinctive civil rights culture in the early 1960s, writers of Ellison’s cohort struggled to create transitional forms that would move beyond the logic of the so-called “protest” genre – writing aligned with sociological methods for studying “the Negro” and the conditions of “inferiority,” exemplified by Richard Wright’s Native Son. Documentary photography of the 1930s was utterly implicated in this kind of sociological work, as in Margaret Bourke-White’s problematic if powerful images of black sharecroppers in the deep South in You Have Seen Their Faces, the FSA’s archive of black “rehabilitation” clients in Southside Chicago, and innumerable other photographic studies of black dispossession from modernity.(23) But documentary was nonetheless predicated on a belief in the camera’s categorical power to bestow dignity and social value on its subjects. At a moment when the project of black self-affirmation had become both more urgent and newly possible, this facet of documentary tradition continued to suggest itself as a cultural resource. Black America was hardly ready to abandon the project of rendering visible its obscured, repressed, or forgotten histories, particularly the perdurable facts of white violence and appropriation. Documentary photography offered itself as a way to make claims for that invisible history, to relocate the meaning of social experience within everyday spaces – the tenements and alleys and basements; “the gin mills and the barber shops and the juke joints and the churches” where, as Ellison’s narrator argues, a “whole unrecorded history is spoken” (471).
This double understanding of documentary images, as both a source for devastating misrepresentation of black Americans and a resource for combating it, helps explain how the visual genre that Ellison at times so powerfully critiques remains central to his self-imagination as a writer. His own street photographs hardly achieve the taut complexity or technical virtuousity of the most storied images of the New York School. But they nonetheless suggest how Ellison used the evolving canons of street photography as a resource for transforming the essentially didactic logic of documentary into a more richly ambiguous textual mode.
Nowhere is this transformation more graphically attested to than in a binder among Ellison’s papers, undated but apparently part of his collection of working materials prior to 1944, and marked “Photographs Miscellaneous Invisible Men.”(24) At one point, the binder appears to have included a stack of images; at present, it houses a single print: the photograph of an unidentified woman, shot at relatively close range, lying on a city sidewalk. From the position of the subject’s body, it is impossible to determine whether she is dead or merely unconscious; she might be a crime victim or drug user or an unfortunate fallen literally by the wayside. What rescues the image from a kind of documentary banality – and makes such banality, the ease with which the camera affords us a voyeuristic view of failure and pain and want, part of what we confront – is a series of telling details. The woman’s hand is placed precisely, in support of her chin, as if she were arrested in deep thought (think Rodin’s “Thinker”); the buttons on her dark sweater are enormously oversized, as if, taken beyond the realm of fashion, they had become amulets donned to ward off this very disaster.
Borrowing from the visual appeal of the crime scene images of Weegee, this shot gives us a window onto an otherwise hidden world. But unlike such infamous Weegee photographs as “Their First Murder,” “Joy of Life,” and “Bodies Taken from Burning Building,” this image locates itself in a post-New Deal social space illegible in terms of murderous violence or sensational catastrophe; the logic of the woman’s death or misfortune is unavailable to us. Also, the image bears no content or title that would locate (and thus confine) this kind of story within such “underworld” spaces as the Bowery, Hell’s Kitchen, or the Lower East Side – sites metonymic for mid-century Americans with criminality, chronic poverty, ethnic or racial alterity, and low life. Indeed, none of the usual narratives – fallen woman, city-dweller down on her luck, class or ethnic type, victim of crime or the street – helps the viewer make sense of the subject. The camera has refused the project of exposing an underworld for the purposes of shock or rehabilitation. Instead, it limns a more nuanced social condition, an unreadability that troubles the very categories its viewers would invoke to resolve it.
This image may have been shot by Ellison or merely printed for him. In either case he apparently saved it in the “work folder” for his novel-in-progress because it records and enables a crucial transition: from the “Forgotten Man” of New Deal nation-building to the “Invisible Men” of Ellison’s writerly imagination. A decade after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famed address at the Democratic National Convention on April 7, 1932, which inaugurated the New Deal by calling for economic programs “that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” Ellison’s shift in notation suggests a decisive rejection of rhetorics of uplift – New Deal, Communist, black bourgeois alike – and an interest in forms of invisibility, marginality, and social experience resistant to conventional political redress.(25)
At least two points are worth emphasizing here. First, it is the camera, by implication, that provides suggestions for the kind of invisibility in which Ellison is interested; the camera, this shot attests, serves as both an instrument and an emblem of transition from the didacticism of “protest” to the possibilities of expressivity, from uplift to aesthetic critique, from redress for the “forgotten” to imaginative engagement with the worlds of the “invisible.” Second, however serendipitous this particular image, its placement within Ellison’s personal archive indicates that the body of a woman (and its representation) serve him as some kind of allegory for the conditions of invisibility. I will return to images of the female body and their role in Invisible Man. Here, I want to emphasize how fundamentally our picture (as it were) of Ellison is altered when his investments in photography are acknowledged and accounted for. Ongoing debates about his politics and commitments to leftism, about his indebtedness to earlier writers and traditions, about his representations of gender and sexuality: all need to address Ellison’s stakes in post-war documentary images, and the role of photography – with its own shifting radicality and modes of critique – in shaping his aesthetics and his narrative strategies. Foregrounding Ellison’s interests in image-making may well undermine a received sense of Invisible Man as sui generis. But it also heightens our awareness of the suppleness and probity with which Ellison exploits available resources for rethinking the novel as an American cultural form.
The traces of photography, that mode of apprehension defined by its power to retain traces of the real, can be found throughout the pages of Invisible Man, and they contribute to some of its most dynamic and controversial effects. From the early incident with Jim Trueblood – staged as a richly ironic riposte to work like Margaret Bourke-White’s, in which photographs of black poverty enable the condescension and patronage of white progressive readers – to the narrator’s final meditations on “the semi-visible world” of urban modernity, whose hidden truths can only be experienced through willed acts of affirmation, Invisible Man offers numerous incidents and narrative moments that riff on photographic history and effect (Invisible 574). In particular, Ellison includes a key scene that functions as an allegory for his own interests in documentary. The scene offers an extended meditation on the documentary form: as a vector of opportunity and means of entry (particularly for black intellectuals after the New Deal and the war); as a compromised mode that imposes the imperatives of protest on black writers; as a potential space for immanent critique. It thus clarifies the ways in which Ellison extrapolates from his interests in photography to position himself on the contentious field of 1940s culture, and to rethink the project of the post-war novel.
This scene occurs in Chapter Thirteen of Invisible Man, at the text’s half-way point. As it begins, Ellison’s protagonist – who has just been released from the Liberty Paints factory hospital and ejected from the genteel sanctuary of Men’s House – takes to the streets of Harlem. In response to a surge of nostalgia the narrator pauses to buy a “hot, baked Car’lina yam” from a street vendor (Invisible 263), savoring the “intense feeling of freedom” afforded by his appetite for such a down-home, folk-tainted, “Field-Niggeris[h]” object (264, 265). But the “freedom to eat yams on the street” turns out to be “far less” – far less consequential, that is – “than I had expected” (267). Unlike Proust’s madeleine, which opens access to a yearned-for past, the yams leave “[a]n unpleasant taste bloom[ing] in my mouth” (267). They bring the narrator the discomfiting recognition that an identity forged in diametric opposition to “what was expected” is no less conventional, no less forcibly bound by the dehumanizing realities it strains to break (266). Literally central to the novel, then, is a moment of existential and historical crisis: how to generate modes of subjectivity and cultural expression embedded in experiential history, from the geography of slavery to the Great Migration, yet free of the deterministic clutches of the past.
As the episode goes on to suggest, documentary as a stance plays a crucial part in Ellison’s response to this question. Having discarded his frost-bitten yam, the narrator continues walking the streets, only to come upon the scene of an eviction – a staple feature of Harlem life throughout the Depression and post-war years. As he attempts to make sense of the event, a new language of visuality becomes insistent: ” ‘Just look what they doing to us. Just look,’ ” the elderly female evictee urges him; “Just look at what they’re doing” (268). Of the “paddies” removing furniture, an outraged bystander yells, ” ‘Look at that’ “(268); ” ‘Look, lady,’ ” one of the dispossessors urges in turn (270). “[F]eeling my eyes burn,” resisting his own transformation into a “witness[s] of what [h]e did not wish to see” (270), the narrator “turn[s] aside and look[s]” instead at the household objects thrown pell-mell into the street: the knocking bones of a minstrel; a hair-straightening comb and curling iron; an Ethiopian flag and a cracked plate commemorating the St. Louis World’s Fair; a set of tarnished cuff links and a yellowed breast pump. Powerfully auratic in their specificity, these bent and faded objects comprise a material history, a kind of museum, of black life in America, in all its richness and impoverishment of opportunity. But Ellison’s catalogue is hardly random. The first thing the narrator “look[s] down to see” is a nineteenth-century portrait of the couple being dispossessed, themselves “looking out of an oval frame” with a gaze that calls to him as both “a reproach and a warning” (271). Their message is clarified only when the narrator completes his witnessing in the present. Last of all, half-buried in the snow, as the narrator searches for “anything missed by my eyes,” he finds “a fragile paper, coming apart with age”: the free papers of the woman’s husband – “my Negro, Primus Provo,” “freed by me this sixth day of August, 1859. Signed: John Samuels. Macon” (272).
Photograph and text; image and testifying narrative: what the narrator encounters, in the form of these framing objects, is the twinned elements of documentary – specifically, the photo-text form so dear to progressive New Deal reformers and black post-war writers alike (among them Wright, Bourke-White, Aaron Siskind, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Roy DeCarava, Walker Evans, James Agee, Gordon Parks, and Dorothea Lange). Here, the photo-text form is made central to the mysteries the narrator confronts: who bestows freedom on whom? How is autonomous identity earned, expressed, given shape? The narrator is shocked by the raw intimacy of these objects – so much so that the “unpleasant taste” left by the yams becomes “a bitter spurt of gall” (273); he finds himself in thrall not merely to the objects themselves, but to the very genre of photo-text documentary, the “linked verbal echoes, images,” of some lost and collective “home” (273). Hewing to the ideals for camera-work of progressive reformers, this photo-text experience prompts an epiphanic moment of “recognition” that spurs social action (273): a spontaneous oration on behalf of the evictees, a performance that paves the narrator’s way to the Brotherhood and a higher education in the realities of power. Invisible Man’s public voice, in other words, begins here, in this encounter with documentary – the moment, as Brother Jack suggests, when “History has been born in your brain” (291).
In this episode, documentary is transformed from a method of exposure – a technique applied to the hapless, the forgotten, the marginal and unself-conscious – into a powerful exercise, at once aesthetic and political, of self-knowledge. The scene thus serves as an implicit rebuke to the reigning figure of literary naturalism, social realism, and documentary throughout the 1940s, Richard Wright, whose Bigger Thomas (according to Ellison) was fatally denied any trace of the self-understanding of his own creator.(26) Indeed, Invisible Man’s dispossession episode seems designed to wrest the power of documentary out from under the avowedly sociological uses made of it by Wright, and not only in Native Son. Ellison also responds to the essentially evangelic bent of Wright’s photo-text project, 12 Million Black Voices, and its unrelenting emphasis on black struggle against oppressive conditions:
The kitchenette is our prison, our death sentence without a trial, the new form of mob violence that assaults not only the lone individual, but all of us, in its ceaseless attacks.
The kitchenette, with its filth and foil air, with its one toilet for thirty or more tenants, kills our black babies so fast that in many cities twice as many of them die as white babies. . . .
The kitchenette scatters death so widely among us that our death rate exceeds our birth rate, and if it were not for the trains and autos bringing us daily into the city from the plantations, we black folks who dwell in northern cities would die out entirely over the course of a few years.(27)
In place of such hortatory rhetoric, Ellison offers the narrator’s intensely felt account of his own witnessing, the narrative of an existential nausea born of terrible beauty, of “beautiful absurdity” (Invisible 552). Notably, the self-understanding categorically denied Bigger Thomas, by virtue of Wright’s documentary commitment to the project of exposing intractable social conditions, is opened as a possibility in Ellison’s text through the narrator’s encounter with documentary objects as such. But here the logic of photo-text amplifies (rather than “explicates” or “exposes”) the mysteries of that encounter. Like the images of the New York School, Ellison’s text emphasizes the power of the documentary stance to evoke powerful yet ambiguous responses, states of being that move the subject “far beyond” the witnessed artifacts’ “intrinsic meaning as objects” (Invisible 273; italics original).
This outbreak, via documentary, of elusive and allusive significance – or, as the narrator puts it, “more meaning than there should have been” (273) – bespeaks Ellison’s interest in the kind of effect produced by post-war street photography. It also suggests how Ellison’s interests as photographer and musician shape one another, and his ambitions for his work as a writer. Notably, the confrontation with documentary objects is what precipitates the kind of spontaneous, improvisatory expressive identity usually associated with jazz. Ellison’s own riff on documentary makes the images and artifacts of black experience a matter of the urban streetscape, just as it makes the register of witnessing a complex admixture of image and sound, material fact and evanescent memory, black speech rhythms and the cadences of lyric. In Ellison’s hands, in other words, documentary becomes both jazz-like and a mode of collage, an experience created out of elements that bear the auratic charge of their own histories of use and survival. The items spilled heedlessly onto the snow – the “useless inhalant” and “tarnished” beads, the “worn baby shoe and dusty lock of infant hair” (272) – evoke such powerful mixed response (the narrator is “both repelled and fascinated” ) because they testify not to social fact but to the mysterious alchemy by which lived experience becomes the stuff of history. What Ellison’s scene of documentary foregrounds, like the storied images of the New York School, is the perhaps irreparable loss sustained by social beings whose work on the world produces nothing more or less than their own alienation. No wonder, then, that the narrator’s spontaneous question to the assembled crowd about the former slave, now dispossessed tenement-dweller, Provo, is so resounding: “Then where did his labor go?” (278).
Photography as a context and a model enables Ellison to stake renewed claims for the American novel, rejecting the instrumentality of protest yet demanding that the conventions of novelistic soul-making answer to the realities of contemporary social experience. Just as the camera serves Ellison as a mode of self-concealment and a strategy for perception and self-representation, the example of its use in the hands of leading post-war practitioners also provides a model for elaborating his own cultural politics – ones that eschewed protest writing, the aesthetics of Communism, and the imperative of authentic blackness alike. The famous conclusion to the novel offers a challenge to the reader cast in the modality of jazz: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” But the scenes leading up to that conclusion speak eloquently to the context of post-war photography, with its dual emphasis on trenchant critique and social affirmation. These scenes suggest that the author of Invisible Man is inseparable from Ralph Ellison, Photographer; they demonstrate how richly the experience of Ellison as an image-maker helps account for the novel’s play with invisibility as a historical condition, a mode of urban perception, and a symbolic language.
My final reading, consequently, begins with the extraordinary final chapter of Invisible Man. There, the narrator has returned from an ill-fated attempt to seduce Sybil, the wife of a prominent Brotherhood leader, to a Harlem ablaze; in response to the death of Tod Clifton, what one participant calls a “sho ‘nough race riot” has begun to break out (552). Steeped in perceptual and moral confusion, the narrator has a devastating epiphany: “Could this be the answer, could this be what the [Brotherhood] had planned . . .? It was not suicide, but murder. The committee had planned it. And I had helped, had been a tool.” (553). Shocked, outraged, he runs aimlessly from one scene of violent encounter to another; the streets on which he flees have become an alien landscape, where shattered glass glitters “like the water of a flooded river” on which “distorted objects,” snatched and abandoned by looters, appear “washed away by the flood” (556). In this moment – both a baptism and a drowning – the narrator is stopped short by a ghostly and ghastly vision:
Ahead of me the body hung, white, naked, and horribly feminine from a lamppost. I felt myself spin around with horror and it was as though I had turned some nightmarish somersault. I whirled, still moving by reflex, back-tracking and stopped and now there was another and another, seven – all hanging before a gutted storefront. I stumbled, hearing the cracking of bones underfoot and saw a physician’s skeleton shattered on the street, the skull rolling away from the backbone, as I steadied long enough to notice the unnatural stiffness of those hanging above me. They were mannequins – ‘Dummies!’ I said aloud. Hairless, bald and sterilely feminine. And I recalled the boys in the blonde wigs, expecting the relief of laughter, but suddenly was more devastated by the humor than by the horror. But are they unreal, I thought; are they? What if one, even one is real – is . . . Sybil? I hugged my brief case, backing away, and ran . . .
(556; ellipses original)
This climactic moment reiterates the arc traced in Chapter Thirteen, from the fact of documentary eye-witnessing to a more complex form of self-expression. Ellison was himself a journalistic observer of the devastating riots that broke out in Harlem on August 1, 1943, in response to economic stagnation, ongoing institutional segregation, and police harassment of black World War II veterans; he covered the grim mêlée for the New York Post, in an article billed as an eye-witness account of Harlem’s most devastating civil disturbance of the twentieth century.(28) But Ellison’s novelistic account plays serious changes on the work of observation, not least by framing the event of the riot as a decisive moment in the evolution of an artist’s self-understanding. In confronting the spectacle of the skeleton and mannequins, Ellison’s narrator enters a zone of liminality, a state of being in which the “real” and the “unreal,” “humor” and “horror,” are continuous if not indistinguishable, and their intersection is the individual’s entry into the “devastat[ion]” of “History” (543, 542).
The full force of this liminal moment becomes available only when we read it in the context of a widely disseminated body of photographic images meditating on precisely this intersection. Ranging from early twentieth-century shots by Eugène Atget of the storefronts and small shops on the outskirts of a rapidly industrializing Paris through art world appropriations by Dadaists and Surrealists of the possibilities of the mechanical human form, these images offer up the mannequin as a symbol or allegory of urban modernity and as an object of apprehension – in both senses – that deeply troubles liberal or progressive management of social difference and change. A prop for burgeoning consumer culture; a cause and effect of the cultivation of personal image; a figure for the radical alienation of human labor and consciousness under advanced capitalism: the mannequin as found object becomes a powerful tool for photographers seeking the effect of estrangement from routine habits of perception and self-understanding. Wrenched out of its usual instrumental contexts, the mannequin becomes an over-determined object of fantasy and meditation, richly available for what Ellison calls “dramatic study in comparative humanity” (Introduction, xv).
This is, at least, the logic of certain photographic images of a key practitioner, foundational to the work of the New York School, whose work Ellison studied with care: the Paris-born, briefly New York-based Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004).(29) Ellison’s interest in Cartier-Bresson is writ throughout his own archive, and it makes resounding sense. Having begun his career as a painter in the ambit of inter-war surrealism, Cartier-Bresson took up the camera as a more powerful instrument for probing realities hidden beneath the banal, slick, even repellant surfaces of everyday life. Wandering unpremeditatively through the streets – the meaner, the better – of Spain, Italy, Mexico City, Paris, and Eastern Europe, photographing the differently threatened life-worlds of brothels, back alleys, flea markets, and Jewish ghettos, Cartier-Bresson produced images that document intimate local realities. Yet in their fantasmatic quality, their insistence on these venues as sites of drama and adventure, these same images evade the closure of conventional documentary. Within his early body of work, some of Cartier-Bresson’s most powerful photographs are shots of storefront mannequins in modernity’s outlying districts. One such image (“Untitled,” 1929) focuses tightly on a jumbled pile of molds for producing artificial hands and feet, the edges of each appendage roughly severed. Even before the Holocaust, the sense of human labor being obscenely misdirected toward the production of its own false emblem and replacement is palpable. In another shot, the head of a male mannequin presses up against the front of a shuttered shop, its unblinking gaze and the tattered window dressings around it belying an adjacent poster, which touts an outmoded vision of the city as source of the bourgeois good life (“Budapest,” 1931).(30)
Such images create a far more complex effect than that of obvious irony, which helps explain the power of Cartier-Bresson’s work as a significant resource for Ellison’s project. In the enigmatic “Rouen, 1929” (Figure 1), the camera focuses on a trio of mannequins sporting menswear, placed outside a shop in the downscale market district of that provincial city. Two feature spindles instead of heads; the third has a full complement of appendages – including “African” features and a black face. Carefully calculated to take fullest advantage of its subject, the image makes the experience of commerce, looking, serendipity itself, inseparable from racial feeling, as it raises persistent questions about the presence of the African in this apparently unlikely place. Indeed, the image insists on a rhythmic progression: the two model forms on the left appear almost to give birth to the erect figure on the right, fully clothed down to its three-piece suit and neatly seamed gloves. Yet if this sequence ends in a figure of assimilation, whereby the African is resplendently transformed in the image of a still-coalescing bourgeois modernity, Cartier-Bresson’s record of that transformation is far from celebratory. At the still center of the photograph runs the diagonal shutterpole of the shopfront; from the viewer’s perspective, it appears to intersect the gleaming metal hoop that holds the mannequin in place – a fettering that uncannily bespeaks the long history of commodification of black bodies in service of Western fantasies.
Fig. 1 Henri Cartier-Bresson, Untitled (Rouen, 1929)
Like vast numbers of his cultural cohort during the 1920s, Cartier-Bresson would indulge in the liberating effects of veneration of the so-called “primitive.” Yet this image, produced in the very moment of the demise of that vogue for the Negro known as the Harlem Renaissance, seems to leave such facile identification behind. Accessorized yet inert, inviting desires it variously troubles, the black mannequin is made the object of social exploration and the viewer’s self-understanding alike. Oscillating between literal and symbolic resonances, Cartier-Bresson’s photograph limns the centrality of the figure of the African to the business of modernity, probing the entangled facts of visibility, race, longing, and belonging.
If Ellison closely followed Cartier-Bresson’s body of work, he was also attentive to the photographs of Lisette Model (1901-83), who (like Ellison) emigrated to New York in 1937. Having (again like Ellison) begun her life in art as a composer and musician, Model inaugurated her photographic career with a series of portraits of bourgeois vacationers on the French Riviera, published in the US January, 1941 in the New York-based Communist weekly PM Magazine – a journal Ellison knew intimately.(31) It was, perhaps, not a far step from her unsparing, monumental images of the pampered bourgeoisie, rendered absurd and even surreal in the artificiality of their self-presentation, to her first American body of work. Titled “Reflections, New York,” the series comprised images of mannequins, passersby, and their multiple refractions in plate-glass shop windows in the glittering precincts of Fifth Avenue.(32)
Like Cartier-Bresson’s, Model’s early work can be read as an analogue, if not a direct source, for Ellison’s own. Confrontational yet nuanced, linking the spaces of post-war privilege with the realities of life on the other side of the tracks and color line, her “Reflections” images bespeak the perceptual challenge of urban experience, the uncanny fixity of American cultural identity, and the unacknowledged links between the two. In an exemplary shot (Figure 2), Model exploits the found realities of the city street to create an image that is both literally illegible and profoundly revealing. With considerable virtuosity, she frames the angled panes of a plate-glass window display so as to locate the manneqins within it, the reflections of facades across the street, and the movements of passersby in what appears to be a unified plane. Deprived of a stable vantage-point or perspectival logic, the viewer confronts the problem of reading the relationship between its subjects; Model’s play between transparency and opacity – what we see and what we see through – makes it impossible for us to understand the inert mannequins as a simple metaphor for their human counterparts, drifting yet unmoved. Rather, the photograph asks us to take our affective bearings from its artificial figures. If the stiffly posed torsos framed in Van Raalte’s exhibition windows signify commerce and the manufacture of desire, the ghostly reflections dominating the image – the partially visible mannequin and the monumental hand, curved in a receptive gesture that appears to emanate from the distant body – have a very different effect. Imbued with the stillness of religious statuary, the shop-front Madonna or angel emanates a prayerful serenity that is itself a claim on our attention. That its auratic quality is lost on the human passersby below, their faces unfocused, their gazes turned purposelessly elsewhere, is ultimately the point of the image. Playing with the uncanniness of the mannequin, Model uses the camera as an instrument to highlight the complexities and contradictions most fundamental to American social life: what is readily on display offers up a deeper truth, a possibility that remains, by virtue of our habits of perception, utterly invisible.
Fig. 2 Lisette Model, Reflection, New York, c. 1939-45
Model’s larger body of mannequin images gestures toward a racialized understanding of this problem of visibility – indeed, she would write of her freelance work for the very journal from which many of Ellison’s photographic clippings were made, owned by William Randolph Hearst, that most of it never saw the light of day because Hearst “didn’t like black people.” Other bodies of photographs link the mannequin as a device securely with Ellison’s purchase on black experience. In the photo-journalistic response to the 1943 riots in Harlem, the mannequin was ready to hand as a densely symbolic object. Innumerable photographs focus on the very scene Ellison invokes: broken shop-fronts, the streets littered with debris from looting, particularly the remains of display mannequins decapitated or disassembled in the process. These images circulated in such mainstream journals as the New York Times, New York Post, and the Daily News. Their subjects, composition, and dynamics generally suggest outrage about the destruction of white-owned property and loss of revenues, even as they stoke white readers’ anxiety about the implied (or real) threats to (real) white bodies downtown. But some of these shots do more complex work, analogous to Ellison’s novelistic aims.
Among them is a widely reproduced UPI wire service photo that appeared most prominently in the New York Times (Figure 3). In it, the pavement in front of a department store has taken on the look of a battlefield; only human violence could have created such programmatic devastation. The store’s display mannequins have been stripped of their clothing, disassembled, and strewn about. Their inert nudity re-enforces the uncanny charge of their likeness to scenes of patriotic gore, the nation’s fallen dead. Cropped to produce a tighter focus on the one mannequin with a head that remains upright, the image offers that figure as both a watchful survivor and a haunting testament to the logic that produced this landscape: economic opportunism, unacknowledged labor, a consumer logic predicated on white-owned institutions and Anglo-centric artifacts. With its rouged and hollowed cheekbones, its marcelled hair, its sultry survey of the devastation, the mannequin becomes obscene and foreboding, its knowing glance that of the Sybil – the prophetess whose hypnotic vision foretells the lineaments of disaster. Like the invisible man’s Sybil, who drunkenly beseeches him to perform as her own “domesticated rapist” (510), the mannequin seems here to invite a violent response that can only confirm the dehumanizing power of the racial fantasies it embodies.
Fig. 3 UPI Untitled (Harlem After Riot) 1943
All the more telling, then, that Ellison invokes the figure of the mannequin, and this body of photographic meditation on it, to articulate the narrator’s sense of agency. In witnessing those uncanny objects, bespeaking a humanity they mimic yet lack, the invisible man comes fully to recognize both the lacerating fact of his structural invisibility as a black American, and the liberating possibilities for self-creation in his embrace of that condition. Forced to confront the paradoxes of visibility and identity embodied by the mannequins, the narrator finally ceases to be a mannequin himself: a “zombie,” “an automation,” “a walking personification of the Negative” (94, 95). Raising the existential question “What if one, even one, is real . . .?” (556), the invisible man acknowledges the effects of his own attempts to play at invisibility: “By pretending to agree I had indeed agreed, had made myself responsible for that huddled form lighted by flame and gunfire in the street . . .” (553). This mode of responsibility differs radically from other invocations of the word throughout the text: the narrator’s desperate parroting, in his speech after the Battle Royal, of the mantras of “social responsibility” and social “equality” (31); Norton’s “kindly” denial to Bledsoe of the narrator’s responsibility for his injury (103); the narrator’s response to the zoot-suiters he observes after Clifton’s funeral, who make him feel “responsible” for his political failures (444); the Brotherhood’s disciplinary response to the invisible man’s “personal re-spon-si-bility” (464). For the first time, “responsibility” – the notion that “even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play” (581) – gestures toward a mode of affirmation that implicates both the narrator’s acts in the world of social experience and his narrative about them; both the realities of political struggle and the expressive energies that name and transmit it. Politics and aesthetics, or politics and “love” (to use Ellison’s phrase) are at last – however painfully, however tentatively – comprehended in one.
Without the context of post-war photography, such subtle appropriations of its imagery and aspirations remain invisible to us. Yet restoring that context is hardly to diminish the power of Ellison’s project as a novelist. Quite the reverse: it allows us to recognize the suppleness with which Ellison exploits documentary history and conventions as a mode of self-creation; as a means of negotiating the fluid political circles in which he moved; as a strategy for evading racialized aesthetic imperatives; as a resource for rethinking the impasses of the novel after the heyday of social realism, documentary, and protest. To foreground Ellison’s engagement with photography is to recognize his purposive struggles to respond to, and simultaneously to shape, the conditions of his work’s emergence. Even Ellison’s controversial commitment to an Afro-Euro-American aesthetic, a kind of cultural miscegenation, looks different in connection with photography, concerned in the post-war years to negotiate the same range of cultural registers and practices: blues and the folk, elite and popular modernisms, black and white rhetorics of uplift and redemption, the stylistics of the hot and the cool. Although that story remains to be fully told, we begin by acknowledging the challenge of Ellison’s self-imagination as photographer. Putting the camera back in his hand, we enable him to testify to the powerful achievement of the novel in America at the tumultuous mid-century.
(1) John Callahan, “Preface,” Flying Home (New York: Random House, 1996), p. xviii.
(2) Callahan, “Preface”, xv. The argument for African-American writing as inseparable from musical traditions has taken its most influential form in the work of Houston A. Baker, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (University of Chicago Press, 1987); Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); and Brent Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003). For a vigorous dissent see Kenneth Warren, So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism (University of Chicago Press, 2003).
(3) Robert O’Mealley, The Craft of Ralph Ellison (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 81, esp. pp. 25-41
(4) Ellison’s archive is housed at the Library of Congress; the photographic and related materials on which I draw are held in the Prints and Photographs Division. Many thanks to Alice Lotvin Birney, Curator of the Manuscript Division, and to Marcia Battle, Curator in the Prints and Photographs Division, for their aid.
(5) See Nathaniel Natanson, The Black Image in the New Deal: The Politics of FSA Photography (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1992).
(6) See Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume II: 1941-1967, I Dream a World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 244.
(7) Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage, 1995), p. 36. Hereafter cited in the text as Invisible.
(8) A judicious version of the received view is given by Eric Sundquist: “although Ellison shares with a number of novelists of the 1930s and 1940s an interest in photographic realism, he infused documentary fiction with a heightened sense that the writer’s distortion of, and improvisation on, the observed world could bring out more effectively the moral and psychological density of its internal meaning.” Sundquist, ed. Cultural Contexts for Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (Boston: Bedford, 1995), p. 16.
(9) Ralph Ellison, “Hidden Name and Complex Fate: A Writer’s Experience in the United States,” Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 1964), pp. 152-3. Hereafter cited in the text as “Hidden.”
(10) Karen Jacobs, “One-Eyed Jacks and Three-Eyed Monsters,” The Eye’s Mind: Literary Modernism and Visual Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 146, reads this lens as representative of “the aspiring visual mastery and the attendant violence which Ellison associated” with American social science in general. Such a reading, I suggest, moves too quickly from the densely material fact of photographic practice and artifacts to figurative resonances.
(11) Nicholas Natanson, “Robert H. McNeill and the Profusion of Virginia Experience,” in Visual Journal: Harlem and DC in the Thirties and Forties, eds. Deborah Willis and Jane Lusaka (Washington, DC: Center for African-American History and Culture and Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), p. 99.
(12) A useful summation of the technical properties and mythologies attendant on various types of camera available to professionals and advanced amateurs in the context of documentary culture is Eliot Elisofon’s “Types of Cameras,” Photo Notes (August 1938), pp. 3-4. Elisofon was then president of the left-leaning New York Photo League, an important center of photographic activism during the New Deal and wartime years and an institutional player in left cultural politics in New York.
(13) One version of this image has been reproduced in Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, ed. Albert Murray and John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 2000), facing p. 134 (n.p.).
(14) Ellison Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Box 2.
(15) Ellison Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Box 2.
(16) Ellison, letter to Albert Murray, March 15, 1956, in Trading Twelves, p. 118.
(17) The phrase, it is worth noting, was borrowed directly from working notes Ellison made during oral interviews he conducted in Harlem as a writer of local ethnography and documentary pieces under the auspices of his New Deal employer, the New York branch of the Federal Writers’ Project. For the full substance of the interview, see Aaron Siskind, Harlem Document: Photograph, 1932-1940 (Providence, RI: Matrix, 1981), n.p.
(18) Albert Murray, letter to Ralph Ellison, February 15, 1956, in Trading Twelves, p. 113.
(19) See, for example, the street images published in the portfolio included in Trading Twelves, n.p.
(20) Influential critiques of the documentary tradition with respect to its appropriative and unidirectional gaze have been made by John Tagg, “The Currency of the Photograph: New Deal Reformism and Documentary Rhetoric,” The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pp. 153-83, and Maren Stange, Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America 1890-1950 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
(21) Ellison Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Boxes 4 and 5.
(22) For definitive discussions of this body of work see Jane Livingston, The New York School: Photographs, 1936-1963 (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1992) and Max Kozloff, New York: Capital of Photography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press and NY: The Jewish Museum, 1992).
(23) Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, You Have Seen Their Faces (New York: Arno Press, 1975 [orig. 1937]). For reproductions of FSA images of Black Chicago, see Maren Stange, Bronzeville: Black Chicago in Pictures, 1941-43 (New York: New Press/W.W. Norton, 2003); Natanson, Black Image, offers a balanced and insightful reading of the mixed effects of the FSA record with respect to the representation of Black America.
(24) Ellison Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Box 4.
(25) Franklin D. Roosevelt, Campaign Address, Albany, NY, April 7, 1932, “The Forgotten Man.” Reprinted in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vol. 1, 1928-32, (New York: Random House, 1938), p. 624. Ellison’s relationship to the rapidly changing, fraught rhetorics of liberalism, Communism, and socialism has occasioned distinctly varied readings on the part of critics like Barbara Foley, “Reading Redness: Politics and Audience in Ralph Ellison’s Early Short Fiction,” JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 29:3 (Fall 1999): 323-39; Jerry Gafio Watts, Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Lawrence Jackson, Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002); and Arnold Rampersad, “Baldwin, Ellison and the American Left,” paper delivered at the Modern Language Association convention, New York, December 2002.
(26) As Ellison famously put it in “The World and The Jug,” Shadow and Act, (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), p. 114, “Wright could imagine Bigger, but Bigger could not possibly imagine Richard Wright. Wright saw to that.”
(27) Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1941), pp. 106-7.
(28) Ellison, “Eye Witness Story of a Riot: False Rumors Spurred by Mob,” New York Post, August 2, 1943: 4.
(29) Ellison’s contact with Cartier-Bresson’s work is a matter of cultural conjunction as well as specific contact. In 1934, Cartier-Bresson lived for a time in Mexico City with Langston Hughes, who would launch Ellison’s career three years later by hiring him as a secretary, introducing him to Richard Wright and other key cultural players, and discussing photography, culture, politics, and literary matters. In 1935, Cartier-Bresson not only spent significant time on the Harlem club circuit; he became close to Harlem’s radical elite and to a number of photographers, later known to Ellison, working in and on black Harlem. By 1947, when Cartier-Bresson had his first retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Ellison appears to have been familiar with the images exhibited there: beginning in the mid-1940s, he maintained clippings files on Cartier-Bresson that span several decades.
(30) For reproductions of these images, see Peter Galassi, ed., Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Early Work (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1987).
(31) For detailed discussion of Richard Wright’s association with PM, at the moment of Ellison’s most intense engagements with Wright’s work, see Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, tr. Isabel Barzun (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), pp. 258-9, 265.
(32) For reproductions of these images, see Ann Thomas, Lisette Model (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1990), pp. 28-9, 38-9, 78-9, 86-9.
Sara Blair is Associate Professor of English at the University of Michigan and author of Henry James and the Writing of Race and Nation (1996).