Roy DeCarava is a legend and a GIANT in the field of 20th century photography and one of the finest, most revered, and influential artists in the United States since 1945. His astonishing photographs are thankfully on public display in many of the world's greatest museums including MOMA. But even more importantly DeCarava's extraordinary work has been and continues to be a beacon for visual artists on a global level and especially for artists of color in the United States. I personally had the distinct and lasting pleasure of viewing Mr. DeCarava's stunning photographs and hearing him talk about his work on a number of occasions in many spaces throughout the country. In 1998 my wife and I attended a ravishing international retrospective of DeCarava's photography at San Francisco MOMA where Mr. DeCarava regaled the SRO crowd in the museum auditorium with fascinating anecdotes and stirring recollections not only of his revolutionary and pioneering work photographing many anonymous and "ordinary" people in New York's incredibly diverse urban context but many indelible encounters with such iconic artists as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Erroll Garner, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gilespie, Horace Silver and many, many others--all of whom he immortalized in ethereally powerful photographs that have defined the very essence of the fine art of portraiture and location photography. His kinetic, meditative, and haunting style has been widely imitated but absolutely never duplicated in a prolific career that lasted over six decades. I cherish the autographs he gave me and my wife--especially of the famous large photograph of the late, great John Coltrane that adorns our living room wall to this day. Three generations of African American, Latino, Asian, and white photographers and painters have been captivated and inspired by his work and have gone on to continue his wonderful and thriving legacy of creating incredible images of everyday life and experience. His riveting and classic books of photography like The Sound I Saw: Improvisations On a Jazz Theme (Phadon, 2001), The Sweet Flypaper of Life--with text by Langston Hughes)-- (Hill & Wang, 1955; reprinted by Howard University Press, 1984), and Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective (Museum of Modern Art, 1996) stand as some of the greatest photographic art that has ever been produced in the United States.
Roy DeCarava, Harlem Insider Who Photographed Ordinary Life, Dies at 89
By RANDY KENNEDY
October 28, 2009
New York Times
Roy DeCarava, the child of a single mother in Harlem who turned that neighborhood into his canvas, becoming one of the most important photographers of his generation by chronicling the lives of its ordinary people and its jazz giants, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 89 and lived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
His death was announced by Sherry Turner DeCarava, his wife and an art historian who has written about his work.
Mr. DeCarava trained to be a painter, but while using a camera to gather images for his printmaking work he began to gravitate toward photography, partly because of its immediacy but also because of the limitations he saw all around him for a black artist in a segregated nation. “A black painter, to be an artist,” he once said, “had to join the white world or not function — had to accept the values of white culture.”
Over a career of almost 60 years, Mr. DeCarava — who fiercely guarded the manner in which his work was exhibited and whose visibility in the art world remained low for decades — came to be regarded as the founder of a school of African-American photography that broke with the social documentary traditions of his time. While an outspoken crusader for civil rights, he felt that his pictures would speak louder as a record of black life in America if they abandoned the overtly humanist aims of mentors like Edward Steichen.
“I do not want a documentary or sociological statement,” he wrote in his application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he won in 1952, becoming the first black photographer to do so. His goal, he explained, was “a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.”
His books, like “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” a best-selling 1955 collaboration with Langston Hughes, and his most famous photographs — a girl in a pristine graduation dress heading down a desolate, shadowed street; a man ascending wearily from the subway; a stage portrait of John Coltrane playing with closed-eyed fury — were hugely influential, paving the way for younger photographers like Beuford Smith and Carrie Mae Weems.
“One of the things that got to me,” Mr. DeCarava told The New York Times in 1982, “was that I felt that black people were not being portrayed in a serious and in an artistic way.”
Peter Galassi, the chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, who organized a retrospective of Mr. DeCarava’s work there in 1996, said of him on Wednesday: “He was looking at everyday life in Harlem from the inside, not as a sociological or political vehicle. No photographer black or white before him had really shown ordinary domestic life so perceptively and tenderly, so persuasively.”
Roy Rudolph DeCarava was born in New York on Dec. 9, 1919. He was the only child of Elfreda Ferguson, a Jamaican immigrant, who separated from Mr. DeCarava’s father not long after his birth. As a child he shined shoes and delivered newspapers and ice to make ends meet, while his mother, an amateur photographer, made sure that his artistic talents were nurtured with music lessons and drawing supplies. He was one of only two black students at a high school for textile studies in the Chelsea section and one of only a few at the Cooper Union School of Art, to which he had won a scholarship to study art and architecture. After two years there, discouraged by the hostile attitude of many white students toward him, he left and enrolled at the Harlem Community Art Center on 125th Street, where he pursued painting while also using his brushes to make signs for the Works Progress Administration. After a stint in the Army during World War II, he returned to New York and left painting behind for printmaking, which he juggled with a job in commercial illustration.
But soon his field work with a camera, meant to feed his printmaking, became his primary interest, and he joined the great postwar street photography world, where practitioners like Helen Levitt, William Klein and Lisette Model were at work with their 35-millimeter rangefinders.
Mr. DeCarava (pronounced dee-cuh-RAV-ah) told Charlie Rose in a televised interview in 1996 that photography was an ideal way to get at the directness he desired from art. “Going outside and meeting the challenge of taking what is and making it yours, that’s what photography does for me,” he said. “It’s not the subject that interests me as much as my perception of the subject.”
Avoiding flash whenever he could, his pictures explored the nuances of shadow perhaps more than any other photographer of his day. The critic Vicki Goldberg, writing in The New York Times, described his best work as “bafflingly dark, suffused with stillness,” adding: “DeCarava reads the city’s small secrets as it goes about its business unawares, and comes in so close that everything outside his concentration falls away.”
The $3,200 he received from his Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to shoot in Harlem full time. Steichen used some of Mr. DeCarava’s work in the landmark “Family of Man” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. At the same time — after he had approached Hughes for help in finding a publisher — he published “Sweet Flypaper of Life,” which uses his work with Hughes’s prose poetry to weave a fictional narrative of Harlem life as told by a grandmother named Sister Mary Bradley.
Around the same time, he embarked on a years-long project of photographing jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Thelonious Monk at work and at rest. He was drawn to his subjects, he once said, not only because of his love of the music, but also because of the affinities he saw between jazz and photography, both of which depend on the understanding that “in between that one-fifteenth of a second, there is a thickness.”
Like many photographers who came of age in the 1940s and ’50s, he fought to win full recognition of photography by museums and galleries. For two years in the mid-’50s, he turned an apartment where he lived on the Upper West Side into a photo gallery, featuring exhibitions of work by artists like Harry Callahan and Minor White.
“From the broader art community recognition did come, albeit slowly, and sometimes at great cost,” wrote his wife, Sherry Turner DeCarava, whose three daughters with him, Susan, Wendy and Laura DeCarava, all of Brooklyn, also survive him. “His insistence that people recognize and treat photography properly, as a fine art, was ahead of many in his generation.”
But Mr. DeCarava struggled against barriers much more difficult to overcome. He was active in the Committee to End Discrimination Against Black Photographers and helped lead efforts like a protest against Life magazine, demanding that it address the lack of black photographers on its staff. But not everyone agreed with his approach. Gordon Parks, Life’s only black photographer in the 1960s, declined to endorse the protest and Mr. DeCarava never forgave him.
His first major solo museum exhibition did not come until 1969, at the Studio Museum in Harlem. In 2006, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts for work that, as his citation said, “seized the attention of our nation while displaying the dignity and determination of his subjects.”
To support himself and his family, Mr. DeCarava worked for many years as a freelance magazine photographer for publications like Fortune and Newsweek.
In 1975, he became an associate professor at Hunter College and later a professor of art there, one not afraid to take things into his own hands. Over one Christmas vacation, as his wife recalled, he designed and built the first full-fledged undergraduate darkroom for the college’s art department. But he described his most significant contribution as trying to impart to his students a sense of photography’s unique power.“It doesn’t have to be pretty to be true,” Mr. DeCarava said in a 2001 interview with the contemporary artist Dread Scott. “But if it’s true it’s beautiful. Truth is beautiful. And so my whole work is about what amounts to a reverence for life itself.”
INTERVIEW WITH ROY DeCARAVA FROM 1996 ON NPR
DAVID BIANCULLI, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Roy DeCarava, the man who became a famous photographer by taking pictures of every day life in Harlem, died Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 89 years old. DeCarava was born in 1919, and grew up in Harlem at a time when it was the center artistic and literary life. His photographs, covering more than half a century of Harlem, have been exhibited by many museums and collected in several books.Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane are some of the musicians he photographed - at work and at play. In 1952, Roy DeCarava became the first African-American photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. It enabled him to spend a full year taking pictures of daily life in Harlem.Terry spoke with him in 1996. One of his Harlem photos from 1952 is called "Man Coming Up Subway Stairs." The man looks like he's returning from a long hard day of work. He's wearing a rumpled shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the top button opened. He's carrying his jacket. He's biting his lower lip as he walks up the stairs. Terry asked Roy DeCarava what led to that picture.
Mr. ROY DECARAVA (Photographer): I used to work - I was working nine to five and I used to - with like everybody else, I woke up in the morning and went to work and came home and I was tired. And I was very much aware of my fellow riders and their appearances and their feelings, and I thought in a sense that this was a remarkable experience, in the sense that these were the people who went to work every day, worked hard, and their lives were rather circumscribed. And in many ways, they were borderline in a sense in how they lived. And in a way, I thought that their consistency and their perseverance was, in itself, a rather heroic thing.And so, that this - with that picture, which I sort of planned. I planned in the sense that I'd seen these kinds of images every day for years and there was no doubt that I would, when I decided to take a picture, that I would find one that would come along. And so what I did, I established the hours from four to six, so I had to find a place. So I opted for the entrance or the exit of a subway.But it had to be a - one of those subway stations that have disappeared. But they had a kiosk, which is this overhead covering and the walls were made of glass - wide glass. And I managed to find one - believe it or not - with a hole in it so that I could stand on the side and wait for this gentleman, or person, or woman to come up the stairs. And he eventually did, and he was perfect.GROSS: What made him perfect?
Mr.DECARAVA: Well, he had all the things that one associates with being tired.(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DECARAVA: And yet, constant. I mean he was determined. I mean, either he was determined to get home or maybe he was just determined to get up at the top of the stairs, because he was very tired. And to prove it, when he got to the landing, he rested, which gave me a chance to put another roll of film into the camera; because at that time, I only had one exposure left and I was debating whether I should wait until he got there or put in another roll.So when he stopped to rest on the landing, I was able to put another roll of film in, and so when he got there, I had plenty of film to in case I need to take more than one. But fortunately, I only needed that one anyway.GROSS: Now, did you ever find out who this man was and did he ever find out that you took a now celebrated photograph of him?
Mr. DECARAVA: No, I don't think so. People generally - I don't know. I really -I have no idea. This was taken a long time ago and I've never had anybody say anything to me about it, so I imagine not.
GROSS: I'd like to ask you about the photograph that on the cover of your Museum of Modern Art catalog.
Mr. DECARAVA: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And it's a picture of a woman walking down the steps taken, I believe, in the early 1950s.
Mr. DECARAVA: Mm-hmm.GROSS: And the photograph ends at about her, just right above her waist.
Mr. DECARAVA: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So basically you see her coat, you know, the bottom half of her coat. You see one arm; you see two legs sticking out from under this long coat.(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: We have no idea who she is or anything about her. But in a way, it reminds me of the kind of image I see a lot. Like, if I'm looking down or if I'm looking up, but I'm not looking up far enough...(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DECARAVA: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...to see a person's whole body. Tell me why you framed it this way? Why we're just seeing the bottom half of her body?
Mr. DECARAVA: Well, because the body talks to you. The body says things to you. You don't have to see a face to know. You can see a body, a person's way they carry themselves. Every individual is unique in that sense and in every sense, so that there's, I guess, for want of a better phrase, it's body language. The body tells you; your feet, your legs, how you walk, how you stand, how you relax - they tell you things. And this - I thought that this was a very beautiful moment. It was a very delicate kind of image of a woman. Definitely a woman and it was beautiful. It was - I liked it.
GROSS: One of my favorite of your series of photos of jazz musicians is a backstage photo. It's during a session break with the Ellington Orchestra...
Mr. DECARAVA: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
GROSS: ...taken in 1954.
Mr. DECARAVA: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: And it's such a beautiful composition of repose and disarray.(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DECARAVA: Right. Right.
GROSS: Because it's backstage, you know. In the center of the photograph is a coat rack, and either side of the coat rack is a jazz musician. They're each facing in opposite directions.(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: They're each facing the wall. They're sitting on folding cars, each reading something. I can't tell whether it's...
Mr. DECARAVA: Yeah.
GROSS: ...you know, sheet music or the newspaper. And there's, you know, folding chairs kind of scattered around, and a lot of overhead light.
Mr. DECARAVA: Right. Right.
GROSS: But it's such a...
Mr. DECARAVA: You have good eyes.(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Thanks. But, such a kind of quiet moment and...
Mr. DECARAVA: Yeah. Yeah. I understand. I feel the same way about it. You know, one of the things that is important to me is that one doesn't have to be so literal and so narrow in one's perception of, say music.Music is a very broad category, if you will, and the musicians to me are very important. So it really is not so much about their playing, singularly - you know, photograph them playing something - but it's about my interest in them as people and how they...
Mr. DECARAVA: ...how they respond to what they do and what they do, you know, when they relax or when they go somewhere. You know, the idea that musicians are entertainers and then after they're entertaining, they disappear. They don't disappear. They go home. They go to their families or their friends and they eat like we do. So I'm interested in all of that. And their resting is certainly one that is very important to me and very beautiful. You know, it's not just the act itself. It's a kind of a perception of them in their total environment as much as possible, you know.
BIANCULLI: Roy DeCarava speaking to Terry Gross in 1996.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with photographer Roy Decarava, who died Tuesday at age 89. He took photographs of Harlem's everyday residents and famous folk for more than 50 years.
GROSS: One of the things I really love about your photographs is the lighting. Many of your photographs - I'd venture to say most of the photographs of yours that I have seen - are really pretty dark with very subtle shades of, you know, grays and blacks.
Mr. DECARAVA: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And it's clearly a work of art. It's not reality. This looks different than reality, because of the lighting.
Mr. DECARAVA: That's right. Right(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And I'm wondering what inspired you to go for that very dark atmospheric lighting that almost reminds me of certain film noir.
Mr. DECARAVA: Uh-huh. Well, it's first of all; I have to confess that it's what I like.(Soundbite of laughter)Mr. DECARAVA: I love the tonal scale and the photographic scale, which means the simply the range of tone from black to white, it's so… I mean it's so unique. There's no other process that can give you this kind of tonality. And I'm in love with that. And, in addition to which, when I photograph, I accept the lighting conditions, whatever they are. And I try not to say well, you can't photograph that because it's too dark or there's not enough light. I don't believe in that.(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DECARAVA: I believe if I can see it, I can photograph it, and I accept the outcome in the sense that it is black and white and that in itself removes it from reality. And a lot of the things that I do, for instance, are in the subway, and the subway is not exactly daylight. And even in people's homes, in terms of the technology, the film is sensitive, but in order to really show it, you have to really print at what I call full, and that tends to be on the dark side.Let's say if, you know, 50 percent is this and 50 - it tends to be more on the dark side of 50, and that doesn't bother me at all. In fact, it gives it a luminosity that you can't get by printing normally. And what we consider normal is the information. In other words, one of the things that one gets in a photograph is information. And I would rather sacrifice the information in terms of details and things like that...GROSS: Mm-hmm.
Mr. DECARAVA: ...for a feeling of mood.GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Did you resist color when color came about?
Mr. DECARAVA: Yeah. Well I didn't resist it. It just didn't attract to me. I was never attracted to it, because I didn't - at first I didn't like the garishness of it. Color, when it was first introduced, was very garish.
Mr. DECARAVA: And I did like that. But the main reason I don't use it is because it particularizes too much. It becomes - it's very difficult to do a color photograph without thinking about color first and not what the photograph is about, because color tends to be arbitrary, especially when you're dealing with human beings who dress up brightly when they're feeling sad and...(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DECARAVA: ...when they're feeling bright, they may have on a black suit.(Soundbite of laughter)GROSS: Now I know your mother moved to New York from Jamaica when - I believe she was 17.
Mr. DECARAVA: Right.GROSS: And she raised you as a single mother. Was she very determined that you would succeed? Did she push you?
Mr. DECARAVA: No. She protected me...(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DECARAVA: ...which is a little different.
Mr. DECARAVA: She cared about me and she was very, I mean, she was really very concerned about me and very attached and caring. And she wanted me to do things. I mean she loved music so she wanted me to be a musician; and she loved the violin, so she wanted me to play the violin. But, I remember the turning point in our relationship, I think, or her perception of me, was when that a teacher from the public school system came to my house and told my mother that I was very gifted, and that she should encourage me - because the teacher was very encouraging. She had bought me a paint set and was very much concerned with my future. And she took the time to come to my house and talk to my mother about me, and I thought that was a - and I look back now...(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DECARAVA: ...and I can hardly see that happening nowadays. But it was a beautiful thing I think, on the part of the teacher. And my mother took her seriously, and from then on, she encouraged me to do and be what I wanted to be, you know, which was to draw and to pursue that avenue.GROSS: Now, in one of the catalogue essays, for the catalogue of your photography show, it explains that you were drafted in 1942 and that you had a terrible experience.
Mr. DECARAVA: Forty-three.GROSS: Forty-three, okay. But it says you had a really bad experience in the military and that you were in a psychiatric ward for about a month and ended up with a medical discharge. What happened? Did you have a nervous breakdown?
Mr. DECARAVA: I guess you'd call it that, yeah. And it was the conditions of - I hate to even think about it. It was just very uncomfortable and very mean and destructive, not only to me, but to so many black soldiers. Because at that time there were two Armies, you know. One was black and one was white. And the only reason for the separation is to treat black people different from white people. And that's what happened in the Army, and in the Army, there is no such thing as democracy. And you had to do what you were told.And they just try to break you down and make you a soldier, you know, which was something that went against what I was. So I had a difficult time, but I'm glad to be out of it and I no longer have nightmares.
GROSS: How did being a soldier go against who you were?
Mr. DECARAVA: Well, because there was no - well, of course, it was you had to do things. You were forced to do things that you had really no interest in. And I didn't like the idea of killing people. I didn't like the idea of being killed. I didn't like the whole destructive thing that the Army is made for. It's made - I don't know - you can define it as protection. You can define it as this and that and the other, but the end result is about killing and not to be killed, and that was to - that to me is not a very civilized position to be in.
GROSS: So, what was your month in the psychiatric ward like?
Mr. DECARAVA: Well, it was where I learned about democracy.(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What do you mean?
Mr. DECARAVA: I mean it was the only place in the whole United States Army where they - where we weren't segregated. So, we weren't really the crazy ones.
Mr. DECARAVA: It was the people outside who were crazy.GROSS: That's interesting. So, did it change your sense of yourself when you got out of the Army? Did you see yourself differently than you did before you got in?
Mr. DECARAVA: Yeah. I valued myself more.GROSS: That's interesting, because you'd think that kind of experience would kind of break you down and that you'd lose self esteem.
Mr. DECARAVA: Well, if I stayed in there long enough, I probably would have. And that's what I was fighting against.GROSS: So, tell me about just coming out and feeling like you valued yourself more.(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DECARAVA: Well, I just looked at the sky and I looked at the ground and I said, hallelujah. (Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DECARAVA: It was - I was free to go and do as I please and to pursue my life in a way that was constructive. You know, I didn't have to learn how to shoot and how to do this and do that. And I felt that I could live. No one told me when to get up. No one was overtly cruel to me and mean and authoritarian. No, it was wonderful to be free, to get up in the morning and be responsible for yourself.GROSS: What kind of subject matter would you say interests you most now in your photography?
Mr. DECARAVA: I think what it's about is my feelings.(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DECARAVA: I mean, I've come to the conclusion that it's what I look at and it's how I feel about things that really is what I'm dealing with - not so much with the subject as how I feel about the subject. And the subject can be anything, depending how I feel at that moment, so that really it's about my perceptions that I'm really trying to express. And my perceptions are the same perceptions that human - other human beings feel. So, therefore, I have a kinship for that.GROSS: Roy DeCarava, I want to thank you very much, and congratulations on your show.
Mr. DECARAVA: Thank you. And I'm - I hope that you liked it and I hope that people liked it. And I was glad that I was invited to talk about it. Thank you.BIANCULLI: Roy DeCarava, speaking to Terry Gross in 1996, about his retrospective which started at the Museum of Modern Art. The famous Harlem photographer died Tuesday, at age 89. To see a gallery of his work, including his backstage photograph of Duke Ellington Orchestra, visit freshair.npr.org.