'A photographer can be a storyteller. Images of experience captured on film, when put together like words, can weave tales of feeling and emotion as bold as literature.… [Photographers] bring together fact and fiction, experience, imagination, and feelings in a visual dialogue that has enormous impact on how we observe and relate to the external world and our internal selves.' —Philip Brookman, 'Unlocked Doors: Gordon Parks at the Crossroads,' Gordon Parks: Half Past Autumn, 1997
In addition to being an accomplished writer, filmmaker, and musician, Gordon Parks was widely known as a photographer through the photo essays he created for LIFE. With just a few images, Parks could speak volumes to the broad audience that subscribed to the magazine, frequently highlighting the race, class, and political issues facing America.
As the first African-American staff photographer and writer at LIFE, Parks was able to share a unique perspective with readers. His photo-essay 'A Man Becomes Invisible' was inspired by Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man and captured the essence of activism and social justice that Parks aimed to achieve in his images.
'Life Photographer Gordon Parks, a friend of the Author Ellison, was so moved by this story that he translated it into pictures. With Ellison’s help he re-created from the novel the scenes on these pages to show the loneliness, the horror and the disillusionment of a man who has lost faith in himself and his world' ('A Man Becomes Invisible', LIFE Magazine, August 25, 1952, p. 9).
An image from one of two collaborations between Parks and Ellison, Emerging Man depicts a figure embodying the unnamed narrator from Invisible Man, peeking out of a manhole in the New York City streets from the underground refuge where he resides. While not a scene that actually occurs in the novel, Parks interpreted the themes of the storyline through this work, visualizing how he imagined the narrator would engage with Harlem.
'Disadvantage sometimes pushes you, you know, if you use it right, because you want to rid yourself of those things that hurt you emotionally when you're coming up' (Gordon Parks quoted in 'How self-taught photographer Gordon Parks became a master storyteller' in PBS Newshour, February 1, 2011).