The Person you Know and Don’t – Review of “Ralph Ellison: Photographer”

There are two types of people who will pick up this book.

There will be those who see the name and already know Ralph Ellison was one of the most important authors in American literary history, author of Invisible Man, winner of the 1953 National Book Award for fiction, inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, friend of Richard Wright and Gordon Parks, author of the essay “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks” and a great many other articles and essays, whose second novel, Juneteenth, wasn’t published until after his death.

They will think, Photographer?

“Ralph Ellison: Photographer”
Co-published by Steidl and The Gordon Parks Foundation and the Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust (2023)
review by W. Scott Olsen

And, sadly, because enough time has past between then and now for even brilliant histories to fade, there will be people who see this book and wonder, Ralph who?

Both audiences will find Ralph Ellison: Photographer to be a wonderful, oftentimes thrilling, complex and insightful collection.

Ralph Ellison: Photographer is not a curio. What I mean is this book is not an aside, a distraction, a quirky look at some famous person’s hobby – not Tom Hanks collection of typewriters or Taylor Swift’s making snow globes – which, in truth, says little about the person’s talent or mind. Instead, Ralph Ellison: Photographer is an erudite articulation, in both text and images, of how the artist saw the world.

Ralph Ellison: Photographer, published by Steidl / www.steidl.de

Ralph Ellison: Photographer is a scholarly book without jargon or somnambulism. It begins with four essays that unpack Ellison’s history and involvement with photography. (Actually, the book begins with an image of Ellison’s stationary – remember he was one of this country’s most important authors – which lists his occupation as Photographer.) In the Introduction, by Peter W. Junhardt, Jr., Executive Director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, we learn,

“Ellison’s work in the photographic archive proved wide-ranging, experimental, and eye-opening. The photographs are remarkable for their display of skill as well as experimentation – ranging from commissioned portraits he made while briefly working as a professional photographer, to documentary photographs of 1940s Harlem printed in his home darkroom, intimate studio portraits of his beloved wife, Fanny, and Polaroid still lifes of objects he collected. The photographs appeared to be a form of field notes for Ellison’s writing, but seemed also, as happens with many people who pick up a camera, a diaristic form of expression… Ellison consistently sought new ways of understanding and representing Black life and what it means to define oneself as American.”

Ralph Ellison: Photographer, published by Steidl / www.steidl.de

Next, in a chapter by John F. Callahan, Ellison’s friend and literary executor, we read about a first encounter with Ellison’s images.

“I did not take my eyes off the ineffable, loving Fanny present simultaneously in the print and in the chair at a right angle to her husband. At a glance it looked like a casual home photo. Only when I noticed the sensuous, shadowy light playing on Fanny, and the reflection of the window frame next to her, and sensed the warmth blooming from her face did I realize how nonchalant yet subtly crafted and deeply felt was the composition of Ralph’s photograph.”

The essay by Michal Raz-Russo, Programs Director at the Gordon Parks Foundation, is an enlightening short biography of Ellison that focuses on his photographic evolution and voice.

“For him,” she writes, “photography, much like writing, permitted him to investigate alternative methods of representing Black life and its “blending of styles, values, hopes and dreams” that argued its centrality to American culture.” She continues later in the chapter, “Ellison’s fascination with the technical aspects of picture making – with both the camera and the darkroom – was matched by his interest in genres and typologies. In fact, he seems to have been less interested in the mastery of photography than in what it might reveal or reorient. Ellison rehearsed techniques of early and mid-twentieth century photographic modernism as an exercise and submitting “quintessentially ‘black’ themes to an entirely new visual order…”

Ralph Ellison: Photographer, published by Steidl / www.steidl.de

American literary critic Adam Bradley contributes another chapter that digs in deep as to why we should care about the photography of a writer. “So what, then,” he asks, “do we make of Ellison’s photographs, almost all of which he chose not to publish? How do we distinguish the art from the artifacts, those images Ellison might have deemed worthy of his vision and those he understood simply as by-products of his art? And what, too, of those images that served other functions – documentary or instrumental, personal or playful? Taken as a whole, the scores of images Ellison amassed over the years speak to both a fixity of interest and a variability of method. Stylistically, they offer a microcosm of 20th century photography.”

The book has a short excerpt from Ellison’s writing, part of an essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station: The American Artist and his Audience,” (the English Professor in me wants to spend the next 15 pages explaining this two-page excerpt, but I’ll leave that up to you) and then moves into the images themselves.

Presented chronologically, the images include landscapes, street scenes, portraits of his wife and others, a number of contact sheets with multiple images of a street scene, and a sensitivity to his subjects that is loving and honest. And while there are very few pictures of protests, these are not angry images. If there is one word I think that would serve for all of them, it would be integrity. These images celebrate the integrity of every person within the frame.

Ralph Ellison: Photographer, published by Steidl / www.steidl.de

Ellison’s photography always has a focus on dignity and integrity. Even the landscapes. Even the Polaroids later in his career. Whether intuitively or by training, Ellison understood composition in landscape as well as portrait or square format and there’s an obvious dedication to what central in the image. And I don’t mean centered. I mean thematically or narratively central.

At one level, Ellison’s images have a documentary and field-note-taking feel to them. They are acts of preservation as well as belonging. His street images and early portraits (most of his street images are portraits, too) have a clear resonance to his literary passions. There is a story of Black America and Harlem in every individual image, and profoundly within the collection. When Ellison later became enamored of Polaroid photography and its saturated colors, the documentary aspect of his work remained although his subject turned much more to his home and toward items of beauty. There are many images of flowers, for example. There are images of his other interests, such as audio equipment and his library.

Anybody who has read Ralph Ellison should take a look at this book. People who are too young to remember him need to look at this book and then go straight to reading Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison is a voice that helped define American literature in the 20th Century. These images make that definition larger.

Ralph Ellison: Photographer is a necessary book.

Ralph Ellison: Photographer, published by Steidl / www.steidl.de

A note from FRAMES: if you have a forthcoming or recently published book of photography, please let us know.

Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *