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DeCarava, Roy free

(b New York, NY, Dec 9, 1919; d New York, NY, Oct 27, 2009).
  • James Smalls

American photographer and teacher. A central figure in post-war American photography, DeCarava strongly believed ‘in the power of art to illuminate and transform our lives’. Using Harlem as his subject, DeCarava created groundbreaking pictures of everyday life in that enclave of New York. He is also known for scenes of civil rights protests of the early 1960s, images of jazz musicians, and lyrical studies of nature.

DeCarava studied painting and printmaking at the Cooper Union School of Art, the Harlem Community Art Center, and the George Washington Art School. He took up photography in the late 1940s and quickly mastered its vocabulary. In 1952, DeCarava won a Guggenheim Fellowship—the first awarded to an African American photographer. The scholarship allowed him to spend a year photographing daily life in Harlem. These pictures brought a new moderation and intimacy to the photographing of African Americans and their social environment. Perhaps his most memorable photographs were those that appeared in the book The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), with a fictional text by the renowned African American poet Langston Hughes. The book illustrates with picture and with dialogue, the positive side of life in Harlem. The goal of the text and photographic images was to show the beauty of Harlem and its humanized resilient inhabitants despite trying times. Family, friendship, and religion are highlighted as areas of strength.

It was also in 1955 that DeCarava opened A Photographer’s Gallery in New York. This was a singlehanded, pioneering effort to win recognition for photography as a fine art. The gallery remained opened for more than two years. Shortly thereafter, in 1956, he embarked on an extensive series of photographs of jazz musicians, many of which, such as Coltrane on Soprano (1963), show individuals absorbed in the act of their creative craft. Other photographs in this series, such as Billie Holiday (1953), are warm and affecting portraits. Together with photographs of Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Norman Lewis, and others, these portraits form an important body of work.

In 1958 DeCarava gave up his job as a commercial illustrator and for the next two decades earned his living as a freelance photographer. In 1963, he helped found the Kamoinge Workshop, an association of African American photographers based in Harlem. In the early 1960s, DeCarava’s work responded to racial discrimination most notably in pictures of labourers in New York’s garment district and in photographs of civil rights protests. His Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, DC (1963) was taken at the historic March on Washington and exemplifies the photographer’s instinct for isolating essential detail. Instead of attempting to encompass the vast event, DeCarava’s picture enters into the spirit of the march, distilling a collective determination and hope in the expression of a single face.

DeCarava’s style rejects artificial light and accepts deep shadow and blur as marks of sincerity and authenticity. Beginning in 1985, he elaborated this principle in pictures whose long exposures made the blur of motion an active stylistic device in his photographs.

In 1975 DeCarava ended his freelance career to teach photography at Hunter College, where he became a Distinguished Professor of Art at the City University of New York until his death in 2009.

Photographic publications

  • The Sweet Flypaper of Life (New York, 1967)
  • The Sound I Saw (London and New York, 2001)

Bibliography

  • Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective (exh. cat. by P. Galassi and others, New York, MOMA, 1996)
  • M. Stange: ‘“Illusion Complete within Itself”: Roy DeCarava’s Photography’, Yale Journal of Criticism, vol.9 (1996), pp. 63–92