Ralph Ellison (1913–94) is a foremost figure in American literature, hailed for his seminal novel Invisible Man (1952), a breakthrough representation of the American experience and Black everyday life. Lesser known, however, is his lifelong engagement with photography. Photographer is the first book dedicated to Ellison’s extensive work in the medium, which spans from the 1930s to the ’90s.
Throughout his life, photography played multiple roles for Ellison: a hobby, a source of income, a note-taking tool and an artistic outlet. During his formative years in New York City in the 1940s, he keenly photographed his surroundings, with many images serving as field notes for his writing. In the last decades of his life, as he grappled with his much-anticipated second novel, Ellison turned inward, and he studied his private universe at home with a Polaroid camera.
Accompanying the photographs in this book are several essays situating Ellison’s work within his broader career as a writer, as well an excerpt from his 1977 essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station: The American Artist and His Audience.”