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.”1

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.”2

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.”3

Introduction by Swagato Chakravorty, Museum Research Consortium Fellow, Department of Media and Performance Art, 2016

  1. Randy Kennedy, “Roy DeCarava, Harlem Insider Who Photographed Ordinary Life, Dies at 89,” New York Times, October 28, 2009, accessed June 10, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/arts/29decarava.html. 

  2. Alan Thomas, “Literary Snapshots of the Sho-Nuff Blues,” In These Times, March 27–April 2, 1985, 21. 

  3. Randy Kennedy, “Roy DeCarava, Harlem Insider Who Photographed Ordinary Life, Dies at 89,” New York Times, October 28, 2009, accessed June 10, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/arts/29decarava.html. 

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Introduction
Roy DeCarava (December 9, 1919 – October 27, 2009) was an African American artist. DeCarava received early critical acclaim for his photography, initially engaging and imaging the lives of African Americans and jazz musicians in the communities where he lived and worked. Over a career that spanned nearly six decades, DeCarava came to be known as a founder in the field of black and white fine art photography, advocating for an approach to the medium based on the core value of an individual, subjective creative sensibility, which was separate and distinct from the "social documentary" style of his predecessors.
Wikidata
Q2475981
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Nationalities
American, African American
Gender
Male
Roles
Artist, Photographer
Names
Roy DeCarava, Roy De Carava, Roy Rudolph DeCarava
Ulan
500095793
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License