“I'm not a documentarian, I never have been. I think of myself as poetic, a maker of visions, dreams, and a few nightmares.”
Born in New York City's Harlem neighborhood in 1919, Roy DeCarava came of age during the Harlem Renaissance, when artistic activity and achievement among African Americans flourished across the literary, musical, dramatic, and visual arts. DeCarava did not take up photography until the late 1940s, after working in painting and making prints for the posters division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He used his camera to produce striking studies of everyday black life in Harlem, capturing the varied textures of the neighborhood and the creative efflorescence of the Harlem Renaissance. Resisting explicit politicization, DeCarava used photography to counter what he described as “black people...not being portrayed in a serious and artistic way.”
DeCarava moved fluidly across subjects. In his series The Sound I Saw (begun in 1956, exhibited at The Studio Museum in Harlem in 1983, and published as a book in 2001), he not only chronicled New York jazz luminaries like Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, and John Coltrane, but also captured their influence on visual culture. The deeply personal style of his portraits evinces his sympathy for his subjects. Noting this, publisher and photographer Alan Thomas commented on DeCarava’s “gentle humanism.”
DeCarava’s Harlem photography of the late 1940s and early 1950s garnered the attention of Edward Steichen, who was then director of MoMA’s Department of Photography. At Steichen’s urging, DeCarava applied for and won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in 1952, becoming the first African American photographer to receive this honor. The fellowship enabled him to spend a year shooting hundreds of photographs documenting Harlem life. Steichen included several of DeCarava’s photographs in MoMA’s landmark 1955 exhibition The Family of Man. That same year, DeCarava collaborated with poet, writer, and social activist Langston Hughes to produce The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a book featuring 140 of his photographs accompanied by a narrative written by Hughes.
Avoiding the overtly documentary approach evident in the photography of, for instance, James Van Der Zee or Gordon Parks, DeCarava combined pointed political commentary with aesthetic and formal rigor. His attraction to moody lighting and darker tones is clear in works like Man Coming Up Subway Stairs, a photograph for which he spent many hours searching for the perfect subject. As he once described, he strove for “the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which...only a Negro photographer [could] interpret.”
Note: The opening quote is from Miller, Ivor. “‘If It Hasn’t Been One of Color’: An Interview With Roy DeCarava.” Callaloo 13, no. 4 (1990): 852. https://doi.org/10.2307/2931378.
Swagato Chakravorty, Museum Research Consortium Fellow, Department of Media and Performance Art, 2016