DeCarava, Roy 1919–
Roy DeCarava 1919–
Roy DeCarava spent the better half of a century photographing life in Harlem. His rich, deeply evocative images—of life on its streets, of struggling families inside well-tended homes, of legendary jazz musicians of a bygone era—endure as a document of urban life in twentieth century America. He is considered the first photographer outside of photojournalism to make the African-American experience his primary subject matter. A New York Times profile by Vicki Goldberg deemed him an artist far ahead of his time. “Today it is hardly unusual for black photographer-artists like Carrie Mae Weems and Adrian Piper to comment on African-American life and history,” Goldberg wrote, “but DeCarava came out of an essentially silent era.”
DeCarava was born in New York City on December 9, 1919. His mother, Elfreda, was from Jamaica, but raised him alone after her marriage ended. An only child, DeCarava worked as a shoeshiner, newspaper seller, and even an ice hauler, but his mother also made certain that her artistically gifted son had both art supplies and music lessons. He entered the Harlem annex of New York City’s Textile High School, but the branch was a poor cousin of its main school on 18th Street in Manhattan in the Chelsea neighborhood. DeCarava and another classmate managed to transfer to the main campus, and there they were the sole black students. After graduating in 1938, he took a job as a sign painter with the Works Project Administration, a federally funded public-works program that gave hundreds of artists gainful employment during the Great Depression.
After entering a citywide artistic competition, DeCarava won a scholarship to study architecture and sculpture at the Cooper Union Institute. He spent two years there, but had a hard time dealing with what he felt was institutionalized discrimination against its minority students. He went instead to the Harlem Art Center on 125th Street, and studied painting and printmaking there. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army as topographical draftsman, but again felt the sting of racism, and was eventually granted a medical leave. Back in Harlem, DeCarava earned a living by working as a commercial artist and illustrator, but his artistic career also began to flourish, and he
At a Glance…
Born Roy Rudolph DeCarava on December 9, 1919, in New York, NY; son of Andrew and Elfreda DeCarava; married Sherry Turner (an art historian), 1971; children: Susan, Wendy, Laura. Education: Studied architecture and sculpture at Cooper Union Institute, New York, 1938-40, painting and printmaking at the Harlem Art Center, 1940-42, and drawing and painting at George Washington Carver Art School, New York, 1944-45. Military: U.S. Army, topographical draftsman, 1943.
Career: Artist and photographer, 1936-; Works Project Administration, New York City, sign painter and display artist, 1936-37, technical draftsman, 1939-42, commercial artist and illustrator, 1944-58; A Photographers Gallery, New York City, co-founder and director, 1954-56; freelance photographer with work for Fortune, Newsweek, Time, Life, and other magazines, 1960s; Kamoinge Workshop for black photographers, founder and director, 1963-66; Sports Illustrated, New York, contract photographer, 1968-75; Cooper Union Institute, New York City, adjunct professor of photography, 1969-72; Hunter College, New York City, associate professor, 1975-78, professor of art, 1978-88, distinguished professor of art, 1988-.
Memberships: American Society of Magazine Photographers, chair, Committee to End Discrimination Against Black Photographers, 1963-66.
Awards: Guggenheim Photography Fellowship recipient, 1952; Art Service Award, Mt. Morris United Presbyterian Church, New York, 1969; Benin Creative Photography Award, 1972; Artistic and Cultural Achievement Award, Community Museum of Brooklyn, New York, 1979; honorary citizen of Houston, Texas, 1975; honorary doctorate, Rhode Island School of Design, 1985; honorary doctorate, The Maryland Institute, 1986.
Addresses: Home —81 Halsey St., Brooklyn, New York, NY 11216, Agent—Witkin Gallery, 415 West Broadway, New York, NY 10012.
exhibited his first silkscreen prints at a New York gallery in 1947.
DeCarava began using a camera around 1946 to document street images he wanted to paint. He became so involved in chronicling Harlem’s rich street life that he soon abandoned painting and printmaking altogether. The first show of his photographic work was held at the Forty-Fourth Street Gallery in 1950. The gallery’s owner, a photographer himself, taught DeCarava much of what he knew about darkroom technique. Soon his works were championed by no less than acclaimed photographer Edward Steichen, a pioneer in the form and curator of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art at the time. Steichen suggested that DeCarava apply for a prestigious John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, and in 1952, he became the first African-American photographer ever to win one. In his application, he wrote that he hoped “to show the strength, the wisdom, the dignity of the Negro people. Not the famous and the well known, but the unknown and the unnamed, thus revealing the roots from which spring the greatness of all human beings,” according an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Mary Abbe.
The Guggenheim fellowship was $3,200, a small fortune in 1952, and DeCarava set out to document Harlem and its residents. This northern section of Manhattan had been home to the city’s black middle class since the early twentieth century, and an influx of new residents arrived in large numbers in the 1920s. The climate soon gave rise to an exciting artistic awakening that decade, the first truly African-American cultural movement, that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. Studio photographers such as James Van Der Zee documented some of it back then, but there had been no black photographers working in a purely artistic vein. Later came Gordon Parks, who was also a renowned photojournalist but Harlem’s glory days had faded a bit by the 1940s. It was still home to a black middle class and a thriving jazz scene, but was hard hit by the Great Depression, and in the post-World War II years was considered dangerously overcrowded and an example of some of the more negative aspects of black urban America. New York Times writer Vicki Goldberg called DeCarava’s goal to document life in Harlem “the direct outgrowth of the first movement to proclaim black beautiful, in the first quarter of this century. As blacks moved out of the South en masse and discovered that discrimination was very much alive in the North as well, a heightened sense of common identity developed.”
The images that resulted from this period of DeCarava’s career were published in The Sweet Flypaper of Life, with text by famed Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. The 1955 volume was a watershed event for DeCarava, later hailed as “groundbreaking” and “an achingly beautiful book” by American Visions critic Fern Robinson, and that same year he was invited to participate in the Museum of Modern Art’s historic “Family of Man” photography exhibition, which toured museums around the world. DeCarava also opened a small, appointment-only gallery in his home on W. 85th Street, where he sold the works of other photographers who were trying to move from journalism or commercial work to artistic careers.
DeCarava’s career failed to keep its momentum, however. He had to close the gallery in 1957 due to poor sales, and he became choosy about where his own work was exhibited. To support himself, he worked as a freelance photojournalist, and his images were soon appearing in the pages of Fortune, Newsweek, Time, Life, and other national magazines. He documented many moving images of the civil rights era, including the 1963 March on Washington, and continued to shoot on the streets of Harlem. He found himself increasingly drawn to musicians as subjects, and liked to listen to jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, and others for hours before turning his camera on them in an attempt to provide a visual snapshot of their work.
In 1963 DeCarava founded the Kamoinge Workshop and served as its director until 1966. The name was taken from a Bantu term meaning “group effort,” and the workshop supported young African-American photographers in the city. He also chaired the American Society of Magazine Photographers’ Committee to End Discrimination Against Black Photographers during this period. In 1968 he was hired as a contract photographer for Sports Illustrated magazine, an undoubtedly lucrative line of work but one that he later dismissed as irrelevant to his overall career. Finally, in 1975, DeCarava became an associate professor at Hunter College in New York City, which allowed him to give up his commercial jobs altogether. He was made a full professor of art there in 1978, and a distinguished professor after 1988.
DeCarava’s reputation as a photographer grew during the 1980s, and he lectured frequently as well. The list of museums and galleries that showed his work grew, and in 1996 New York’s Museum of Modern Art honored him with a major show. The nearly 200 images in Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective toured several U.S. cities, and a new generation of critics hailed him as a pioneer and a visionary. “His Harlem,” wrote Abbe in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “is a place of love, laughter and loneliness. A place where couples slow-dance in shabby kitchens, weary workers trudge subway stairs, jazz musicians jam in shadowy clubs, children play on empty curbs and the panorama of life unfolds in shimmering window reflections.” Time’s Richard Lacayo saw the retrospective in New York and asserted that DeCarava’s “street pictures speak in the international language of the snapshot aesthetic.” Commenting on the rich tonalities of gray that became a hallmark of DeCarava’s work, Lacayo also noted that the “most enduring pictures dare you to see in the dark. They’re so heavily shadowed that your eyes have to adjust to the carbon-tone depths.”
The 1996 retrospective helped awaken further interest in DeCarava’s body of work, and he was finally able to find a publisher for his second book, The Sound I Saw: Improvisation on a Jazz Theme. He began assembling it years before, culling images from the hundreds of jazz photos he had taken between 1950 and 1962, and he wrote lyrical passages to accompany unposed portraits of greats like Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, and Miles Davis. The New York Times’s Goldberg liked one image in which “Louis Armstrong, duded up, strides gigantically down a Harlem street with his mouth open in joy, a king sashaying across his concrete kingdom.” Independent Sunday journalist David Us-borne called it “a unique glimpse of an era.… The crack in a single window of a crumbling tenement building was just as clearly picked out as the cut of the diamonds on Billie Holiday’s earring. The rubble of an empty lot was caught as a vivid reflection in the shining hubcaps of an artist’s limousine.”
DeCarava stopped documenting the jazz world after a certain point, feeling that an era had passed. “Something happened to the musicians,” he said in an interview with Robinson for American Visions. “I think the way they are taught has a great deal of influence over how they play. They are no longer taught the way they once were, by experience. They are taught intellectually. Some soulfulness has gone out of their music.” But it’s his images of life in New York City that document a truly vanished time. The innate dichotomies of the city abound in them, often accidentally: in “Man Sitting on Cart,” from 1966, DeCarava captures a man resting for a moment on a wire-enclosed wheeled platform once used for delivering packages. Photographed from behind, he appears confined by it, and a chauffeured limousine looms elsewhere in the frame. “Hallway,” taken in 1953, is often mentioned by critics as one of the most moving of his works. It is also one of his favorites, DeCarava told San Francisco Chronicle journalist Sam Whiting. “It was all the hallways I grew up in,” he explained. “They were poor, poor tenements, badly lit, narrow and confining. Hallways that had something to do with the economics of building for poor people.”
Afterimage writer Melissa Rachleff saw this image of the dark corridor as a metaphor for DeCarava’s unique vision. “In many ways, Hallway is in dialogue with DeCarava’s view of American culture, unintimidated by the gap between the ideal of American democracy and the real, unequal conditions,” she reflected. “The photograph struggles to come into focus beyond the palette of gray, ultimately fading off into a fuzzy haze and revealing the depth and complexity of American life. There is despair and alienation in DeCarava photographs, but there is also romance, community and activism.”
DeCarava still teaches at Hunter College, and lives in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant area neighborhood. His career, he told Usborne in the Independent Sunday interview, has had many peaks and valleys. “I was famous, then I got buried, then I was famous again, then I got buried again and then I was famous again,” he said, laughing. “I don’t think they even know who I am on this street. I am just the old man who lives next door.”
The Sweet Flypaper of Life, with text by Langston Hughes, Simon & Schuster, 1955.
The Sound I Saw: Improvisation on a Jazz Theme, Phaidon Press, 2001.
Contemporary Photographers, third edition, St. James Press, 1996.
Newsmakers, Issue 3, Gale, 1996.
Afterimage, January-February 1997, p. 15.
American Visions, December 1999, p. 20.
Black Issues Book Review, September 2001, p. 38.
Booklist, March 15, 1996, p. 1233.
Christian Science Monitor, February 7, 1996, p. 10.
Independent (London, England), August 26, 2001, p. 19.
Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1996, p. 6.
New York Times, February 11, 1996; March 27, 1996.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 22, 1998, p. E1; February 3, 1998, p. E1.
School Arts, February 2002, p. 33.
Star-Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), February 12, 1999, p. 1E.
Time, February 12, 1996, p. 73.
"DeCarava, Roy 1919–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/decarava-roy-1919
"DeCarava, Roy 1919–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/decarava-roy-1919
December 9, 1919
The photographer Roy DeCarava was born in New York's Harlem. He was raised by his mother and graduated with a major in art from the Straubenmuller Textile High School in 1938. While still in high school he worked as a sign painter and display artist and in the poster division of the Works Projects Administration (WPA) in New York City. In his senior year he won a competition to design a medal for the National Tuberculosis Association's high school essay contest and upon graduation received a scholarship for excellence in art.
Supporting himself as a commercial artist, DeCarava studied painting at Cooper Union with Byron Thomas and Morris Kantor from 1938 to 1940, and lithography and drawing at the Harlem Art Center from 1940 to 1942. He attended the George Washington Carver Art School in 1944 and 1945, studying painting with Charles White. In 1946 his serigraph won the print award at the Atlanta University Fifth Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture (a national juried exhibition for black artists), and the following year he had a one-man show at the Serigraph Gallery in New York.
In 1946 DeCarava began to use photography as a way to sketch ideas for paintings, and by 1947 he had decided to concentrate exclusively on it. Although he lacked formal training, DeCarava approached photography as "just another medium that an artist would use"; he quickly established a distinctive style and chose a subject—the people of Harlem—that engaged him deeply and productively. Some of his strongest work dates from the late 1940s and early 1950s, including Graduation (1949) and Gittel (1950). His first photographic exhibition was in 1950 at New York's Forty-Fourth Street Gallery, and that year he sold three prints to the Museum of Modern Art. In 1952 DeCarava became the tenth photographer and among the earliest black artists to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Continuing his work in Harlem during the fellowship year, DeCarava produced over 2,000 images; he wanted to show, he said, "[African Americans'] beauty and the image that we presented in our being." In 1955 four of his photographs appeared in the Museum of Modern Art's famous Family of Man exhibition and best-selling book. In the same year, 141 photographs were published with a text by Langston Hughes in their much-acclaimed classic The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), a tale of everyday events in the lives of a fictional yet representative Harlem family.
DeCarava formed his style at a time in photographic history when the social documentary ethos of the 1930s
was giving way to a more formalist aesthetic, which especially appreciated a photographer's manipulation of the unique qualities of the medium. He was influenced by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose theory of the "decisive moment" credits formal organization equally with factual content in conveying essential meaning in a photograph. Like Cartier-Bresson, DeCarava uses a small camera, avoids contrived settings, often shooting in the street, and achieves important, often metaphorical, effects through composition, as in Sun and Shade (1952) and Boy Playing, Man Walking (1966). Indeed, DeCarava has taken pains throughout his career to foster interpretations that see more in his style than literal and programmatic documentary. His titles are always brief and uninflected, and he insists that his work is not political and that "the definition of truth is a personal one." Dismayed that so few galleries showed photography as a fine art, DeCarava operated the Photographer's Gallery from 1954 to 1956, exhibiting work by such artists as Berenice Abbott, Harry Callahan, and Minor White.
DeCarava felt keenly that black people were not seen as "worthy subject matter" for art; he was determined that African Americans be portrayed in ways that were "serious," "artistic," and "human." His dual commitment—to
content representing the beauty and diversity of the African-American experience and to full formal mastery of his medium—has deeply influenced younger photographers, who have seen him as the first to develop the black aesthetic in photography. From 1963 to 1966, he directed the Kamoinge Workshop for black photographers and chaired the Committee to End Discrimination against Black Photographers of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. In 1968 DeCarava picketed the Metropolitan Museum of Art's controversial Harlem on My Mind exhibition, protesting its emphasis on documentary, rather than artistic, representation of the Harlem community. In 1972 DeCarava received the Benin Award for contributions to the black community.
DeCarava's work was included in six group shows at the Museum of Modern Art during the 1950s and 1960s, and he had a one-man show at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1969. In 1958 he gave up commercial art to support himself as a freelance photographer for magazines, advertising agencies, museums, and nonprofit organizations. From 1968 to 1975, DeCarava was a contract photographer for Sports Illustrated magazine, and in 1975 he was appointed associate professor of art at Hunter College, attaining the rank of City University distinguished professor in 1989.
DeCarava's impressive exhibition record continued in the 1970s and 1980s with solo shows at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art in Sweden. The Sound I Saw, an exhibition of 100 jazz photographs at the Studio Museum in Harlem, was accompanied by a publication of the same title (1983). In 1982, the Friends of Photography published Roy DeCarava: Photographs, a major monograph with eighty-two pictures.
In the course of his career DeCarava has traveled and photographed in Paris, London, Stockholm, and Bangkok. His developing interest in abstraction has suggested to some critics that he feels an increasing emotional detachment from his subjects. Most viewers, however, have appreciated the artist's occasional experiment with blur or soft focus in later work as evidence of his ongoing creative exploration of his medium.
A retrospective of DeCarava's works was held at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1996. More recent photographs were exhibited in a commercial gallery showing at Ariel Meyerowitz (New York City) in 2004.
Coleman, A. D. "Roy DeCarava: 'Thru Black Eyes.'" In Light Readings: A Photography Critic's Writings, 1968–1978. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 18–28.
DeCarava, Sherry Turner. "Celebration." In Roy DeCarava: Photographs. Carmel, Calif.: Friends of Photography, 1981, pp. 7–20.
Fraser, C. Gerald. "For Roy DeCarava, 62, It's Time for Optimism." New York Times, June 6, 1982.
Rachleff, Melissa. "The Sounds He Saw: The Photography of Roy DeCarava." Afterimage 24, no. 4 (January–February 1997).
Robinson, Fern. "Masterful American Photographer Roy DeCarava." American Visions 14, no. 6 (December 1999).
Stange, Maren. "Shadow and Substance." Art in America 84, no.3 (March 1996).
Wallen, Ruth. "Reading the Shadows: The Photography of Roy DeCarava." Exposure 27, no. 4 (Fall 1990): 13–26.
Blue, Carroll. Conversations with Roy DeCarava. 58 minutes. New York: First Run/Icarus Films, 1983.
maren stange (1996)
"DeCarava, Roy." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/decarava-roy
"DeCarava, Roy." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/decarava-roy