Book Review: Gordon Parks, "INVISIBLE MAN"
Gordon Parks is a fighter for human rights who utilizes his photos as weapons to combat the injustices inflicted upon African Americans. The poetic power behind Parks’ photos is apparent in his book, INVISIBLE MAN (The Gordon Parks Foundation/The Art Institute of Chicago/Steidl). Parks’ artistry and thoughtfulness when taking the photos raises them beyond the normal standard of illustrations.
The first photograph we come to is expressive and revealing, setting the tone for the rest of the book. Parks’ conclusion was particularly powerful, ending with a passionate photo of the male protagonist surrounded by multiple light bulbs, listening to Louie Armstrong records. This picture, being a full-page conclusion to the essay, is an example of a staged photograph.
He purposefully constructed a set that visually mirrors that of the essay’s prologue, where the protagonist recounts his living experiences, giving a description of the basement he lives in and his conflict with the electricity company Monopolated Light & Power. He siphoned power illegally from the power lines and lightened his “bedroom” with one thousand three hundred and sixty-nine light bulbs. Now, he is working on the wall. He has acquired a radio-phonograph and has plans to set up four more so he would be able to enjoy recorded performances of Louie Armstrong singing.
Parks, when necessary to create a more powerful scene, manipulates these details. Blessed with outstanding vivacity, Parks superimposes images to give them more dramatic weight. For example, he took a photo of a glowing electric cave and placed it on to a second picture of New York at night, suspending the basement in a deep tank of darkness. These parallel images enhance the feeling of seclusion and obscurity while asserting the underground refuge as a zone of defiant inspiration and hope. The two record players hanging by wires now seem oddly current, a vision of the future that alludes to the rise of the DJ, club, and hip-hop culture. The walls laced with bulbs indicate that of a downtown art gallery establishment. This foretelling adds another layer to a picture and photo-story with long-term reverberation in the history of the media’s sluggish awareness to the horrifying experience endured by African Americans.
Invisible Man is a complex novel, but Parks’ photos reflect the same themes and ideas, doing the novel justice. A few of the smaller photos, one of which consists of blurred images of a cross, a crucifix, and a skull and another which shows an artificial eye immersed in a glass of water, certainly mirrors details that factor into Invisible Man. Ellison’s novel contributes much to what would later be referred to as "magical realism," and it is essentially about the importance of race and about the purpose of being African American in a nation that is ruled by white supremacy.
"INVISIBLE MAN" was released yesterday, May 26, with Steidl.
Text by Kevin Cleary