“…America is woven of many strands. I would recognise them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many.” – Ralph Ellison
One of the most important writers of his time, Ralph Ellison is renowned for his contributions to American literature through his groundbreaking novel, ‘Invisible Man’, which firmly established him as a literary icon.
However, it is his lesser-known, yet similarly compelling, lifelong engagement with photography that takes center stage in the aptly-titled ‘Photographer’. Spanning multiple decades, this collection explores Ellison’s absorbing photographic oeuvre, unveiling a multifaceted artist whose blend of artistry and honesty is reminiscent of some of his most iconic contemporaries.
It was shortly after Ellison’s move to New York City in 1936 that he embarked on his photographic journey, taking to the streets, his camera in tow to explore his new home with the fascination of an outsider.
Captured during the transformative decades of the 1940s and 1950s, the first part of ‘Photographer’ unveils his early photographs, which served both as essential field notes for his writing and as a means of supplementing his income as a writer, as he took on assignments for various publications.
Imbued with his distinct modernistic viewpoint, and underpinned by a deep humanism, the photographs, shot on both medium and large format cameras, as well as the more wieldy 35mm, showcase the versatility of his artistic vision. Sensitive and forthright, they depict intimate moments with friends (including iconic figures like Langston Hughes) and family members, alongside snapshots of everyday life on the streets of his home city.
Reflecting the essence of his iconic writing, which though fictional, maintained a deep-rooted connection to reality, Ellison’s photographic compositions explore the intricacies of black identity, reflecting the themes that made his debut novel so compelling and successful.
Through his lens, viewers are invited to engage in contemplation and deep reflection, confronting a portrait of America during the period, that wholeheartedly rejects the mythical idea of a melting pot that authorities were attempting to push at the time as means of ‘asserting order’.
The latter section of the book, in contrast, features color polaroids taken in the latter decades of his life as he toiled with the creation of his much anticipated second novel.
Predominantly captured inside his home, the images depict small details, flowers, fruit, small ornaments, revealing a quieter more reflective side of Ellison, a sense that he was looking inwards for inspiration rather than to the streets around him that previously gave him such.
Co-published with The Gordon Parks Foundation and The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust, ‘Photographer’ is a remarkable testament to Ralph Ellison’s lifelong commitment to photography.
It highlights his artistry, perceptivity and the undeniable impact of his visual storytelling, which mirrors that of his captivating writing. This book is not only a valuable addition to Ellison’s artistic legacy but also a compelling invitation to reassess the boundaries of artistic expression and recognize the profound contributions of a true literary giant to the world of photography.
All images © 2022 The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust.
Ralph Ellison – Photographer is published by Steidl with The Gordon Parks Foundation and the Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust.