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Ralph Ellison seated cross-legged in front of a wall of books, television set at his left.
Ralph Ellison in his New York apartment. Visual Images from the Ralph Ellison Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-137232. Reproduced by permission of The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust.

Made at the Library Program to Highlight Ralph Ellison’s Creative Vision as a Writer-Photographer

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This is a guest post by Barbara Bair, historian of literature, culture, and the arts in the Manuscript Division.

In honor of African American History Month, join editors Michal Raz-Russo and John F. Callahan as they discuss their new book Ralph Ellison: Photographer with Prints and Photographs Division reference librarian Melissa Lindberg and Manuscript Division historian Barbara Bair.

The event will take place online only on Thursday, February 8, 2024, 3:00 pm-4:00 pm EST, but will be available later as a recording on the Library of Congress website. Register for the program here.

Please request ADA accommodations at least five business days in advance by contacting (202) 707-6362 or [email protected].

Made at the Library is an event series highlighting works inspired by and emerging from research at the Library of Congress. Featuring authors, artists, and other creators in conversation with Library experts, this series takes a deep dive into the process of working with Library’s collections.

The book Ralph Ellison: Photographer is based on research in the Ralph Ellison Papers in the Manuscript Division and Ellison visual resources in the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs divisions. Raz-Russo and Callahan used Library resources to show Ellison’s creative vision as a writer-artist, the ways he used photography as a means of observation and expression over six decades of his life, and the interrelated nature of his photographic works, personal friendships, and writings. Published in collaboration with The Gordon Parks Foundation and the Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust, the book features photographs and images of manuscripts set in context in essays written by Raz-Russo, Callahan, and Adam Bradley. The book builds on the authors’ prior research utilizing primary materials from the Library’s Ellison collections.

Raz-Russo, now with The Gordon Parks Foundation, was formerly curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago. Callahan, Ellison’s literary trustee, has edited collections of Ellison’s letters and essays from the Manuscript Division’s Ralph Ellison Papers, and UCLA English professor Adam Bradley collaborated with Callahan in editing Ellison’s unfinished second novel, Three Days Before the Shooting (Modern Library, 2011), based on drafts housed in Ellison’s papers.

Ellison in hat and coat on street with camera, Langston Hughes in coat and hat leans on rail in front of building.
Ralph Ellison photographing Langston Hughes, circa 1944-1960. Visual Images from the Ralph Ellison Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-15817. Reproduced by permission of The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust.

As the Ralph Ellison Papers demonstrate, Ellison was a polymath possessed of a wide range of cultural interests and talents. He studied music at Tuskegee University as a student and apprenticed with a sculptor soon after first arriving in New York as a young man. Mentored by Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and others, Ellison emerged as an essayist and short story writer. He observed African American idiom and street-based folkways of children in schoolyards in Harlem in his employment with the Federal Writers Project, as documented in fieldwork reports preserved in the Manuscript Division’s Works Projects Administration Records and his own personal papers, and later used these elements in his fiction writing and his photography.

Cropped view of receipt for a camera, Ellison's name and address, 1948.
Receipt for purchase of camera equipment, 1948. Box 31, Ralph Ellison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The young Ellison made a living in industrial work and the Merchant Marine before turning to teaching and writing. By the late 1940s he was a budding freelance photographer in Manhattan. Records in his personal papers show that his photo assignments varied from coverage of an automobile accident to celebrity portraits and dog shows. He also collaborated as a writer with his friend, the filmmaker, writer, and photographer Gordon Parks, in “Harlem in Nowhere” for ’48: The Magazine of the Year, centered on the Lafargue Clinic, a Harlem psychiatric treatment center operated by Fredric Wertham, and “A Man Becomes Invisible,” a 1952 Life magazine piece based on aspects of what would become Invisible Man. The Gordon Parks Papers and Fredric Wertham Papers are also held in the Manuscript Division.

In his private life, Ellison made photography a fine art and means of personal expression. As Ralph Ellison: Photographer shows, he captured shrewd and lyrical images of people, places, neighborhoods, and the landscapes and cityscapes of New York, from Riverside Park and Harlem to the sidewalks of Chinatown. By the 1970s, his photographs shifted from black and white images of the exterior world to color images capturing interiors and still lifes. His Polaroids capture the intimacy of life of the Riverside Drive apartment he shared with his wife Fanny McConnell Ellison. They are often in a modernist style and include images of Fanny reading or working, still life shots of books lining the bookcases, a seashell and African artworks on a table, his desktop computer with a photograph casually laying nearby, flowers blooming in a vase near a designer sofa, images of the outside world flickering across the face of a black-and-white television set in the living room, or a tree seen from the apartment’s window, changing with the seasons.

Computer on desk with wall of books behind.
Osborne Executive portable computer with Amdex monitor, circa 1985. Visual Images from the Ralph Ellison Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-15737. Reproduced by permission of The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust.

Ralph Ellison: Photographer, as the publisher’s notes indicate, “situates this work within Ellison’s broader career as a writer.” An excerpt of Ellison’s “Little Man at Chehaw Station: The American Artist and His Audience,” from the Manuscript Division’s Ralph Ellison Papers serves as a coda to the essays. Many of the individuals depicted in the book’s selected photographs are reflected in letters, writings, and other materials in the Ellison Papers in the Manuscript Division, including Fanny Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ida Guggenheimer and Albert Erskine, as well as in other personal papers, such as those of his friend and intellectual sparring partner Stanley Edgar Hyman and Hyman’s wife, the author Shirley Jackson.

Typed list of photographic equipment in folder.
Photographic Equipment Inventory. Box 29, Ralph Ellison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Ellison’s writing and photography demonstrate what Raz-Russo describes as his “insistence on emphasizing Black culture as central to American identity translated to a persistent search for alternative ways of seeing and hybrid form of expression that clarified what he viewed as the defining aspects of ‘Americanness.'”

Join us on February 8 to learn more about Ellison’s photography and be inspired to conduct research yourself in Ellison’s visual and textual works by accessing Ellison’s photography online through the Library’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, and with the Ralph Ellison Papers in the Manuscript Reading Room.

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“He also collaborated…” Michal Raz-Russo, Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl; Pleasantville, New York: The Gordon Parks Foundation; Art Institute of Chicago, 2016).

“Ellison’s writing and photography…” Michal Raz-Russo, Ralph Ellison: Photographer (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl; [Pleasantville, N.Y.]: The Gordon Parks Foundation; [New York, N.Y.]: The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust, 2022), 13.

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