This picture appeared in DeCarava’s book The Sweet Flypaper of Life in 1955, with a text by the American poet Langston Hughes. The book has been lauded as a sympathetic view of everyday life in the Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem, drawn by two members of the community rather than by visiting sociologists or reformers. The praise is reasonable, but it fails to note the originality of the photographs DeCarava made behind closed doors, which describe his friends with the same gentleness and warmth they accord to each other. No photographer before him had pictured domestic life—black or white—with such unsentimental tenderness.
To make a picture, a photographer must be in the presence of the subject. This simple fact, often overlooked except where inaccessible mountain peaks or bloody battlefields plainly have demanded the photographer’s resourcefulness or heroism, is a fundamental condition of photography. It helps to explain the relative rarity (apart from snapshots) of intimate pictures of domestic life: to photograph in another person’s home, the photographer must be invited inside.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)