2022-11-25 10:00:27

How Ralph Ellisons World Became Visible

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The New York Times
By Arthur Lubow

Before he became a writer, Ralph Ellison was an emerging photographer. Rarely-seen documentary images, gathered in a forthcoming book, reveal his lifelong engagement with the camera.

Judging the photographs of an artist who is not primarily a photographer raises a prickly question. Are you assessing the photos on their own merits or examining them to better understand the artists main work? With an artist like Degas, his photos can be regarded as preparatory sketches for paintings. But what happens when the artist is not a painter but a writer?

Ralph Ellisons 1952 novel Invisible Man, an eye-opening dissection of the Black experience in America, follows the unnamed narrator on a painful trail of disillusionment, from a small town in the South to a college resembling Tuskegee Institute (which Ellison attended) and then north to Harlem, where he finds employment with a doctrinaire left-wing organization much like the Communist Party.

The book is so searing and vivid that its hard to imagine its equivalent in still images. Ellison, who considered a career in photography before finding his vocation as a writer, operated in a different register when he was looking at the world through a viewfinder. His tenor was naturalistic rather than hallucinatory. A new monograph arriving next month, Ralph Ellison: Photographer, a collaboration of the Gordon Parks Foundation and the Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust, reveals for the first time his half-centurys engagement with the camera, beginning in the 1940s.

Continue read on nytimes.com

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