Postwar Harlem, Captured by Two Legends

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Harlem Neighborhood, Harlem, New York, 1952.

Photographer Gordon Parks and writer Ralph Ellison collaborated twice throughout their lives, depicting black America through pairing Parks’s photos with essays by Ellison. Their first joint project was “Harlem is Nowhere”: The 1948 essay used New York’s first racially integrated psychiatric clinic as a window into social and economic conditions in Harlem at the time. In photographic vignettes of everyday life, they showed the neighborhood in winter — a newsboy glaring fiercely down at the camera lens; the back of a man, photographed from below, exiting an alley; a homeless couple resting on a stoop.

“Harlem is Nowhere” was never published as intended in the 1948 edition of Magazine of the Year (the magazine collapsed weeks before their story was set to run). It was eventually printed in a 1964 collection of Ellison’s essays. The photographer and writer collaborated again for a 1952 Life magazine feature titled “A Man Becomes Invisible” — the same year Ellison released his ground-breaking novel.

The book Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem (out June 28 from Steidl, the Gordon Parks Foundation, and the Art Institute of Chicago) showcases their intricate portraits of black America. Works included in the book are also on display at the Art Institute of Chicago through August 28.

Click ahead to see everyday moments in an intensely segregated world — party shoes lined along the street, sunlight in alleyways, and a cinema marquee on a rainy day in Harlem.