On the occasion of the exhibitions Light Break and the sound i saw (on view through October 26 at the galleries in New York), art historian and curator Sherry Turner DeCarava and The New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham lead a conversation about DeCarava’s work between screenings of films that influenced him (The Maltese Falcon, 1941) and that have been influenced by him (If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018).
Roy DeCarava, born in Harlem in 1919, trained in painting and printmaking at Cooper Union and the Harlem Art Center. DeCarava was a multitalented artistic dynamo who initially took up photography as an aid in sketching for his early paintings. Very soon, however, silver gelatin photography garnered his full attention. The first African American photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, DeCarava pursued his goal of becoming an artist with discipline and determination. Refuting the tropes of the time, in 1952 he said, “I do not want a documentary or sociological statement—I want a creative expression.” DeCarava’s work was a crucial reference point for If Beale Street Could Talk, by director Barry Jenkins, who identified in DeCarava’s photographs a fully developed understanding of human values embedded in an aesthetic visual matrix. While DeCarava never worked in the field of cinema himself, he grew up in the era of black-and-white filmmaking and, in an interview much later in his career, noted, “I think I absorbed the visual aesthetic of black-and-white films, so that when I started taking pictures, it was natural.”
the sound i saw
September 5–October 26, 2019
September 5–October 26, 2019
Join us for a free public walkthrough of Roy DeCarava: Light Break
Saturday, September 28, 3 PM
533 West 19th Street, New York
Led by artist Leslie Hewitt
David Zwirner is pleased to present concurrent exhibitions of photographs by Roy DeCarava (1919–2009) at two of its New York locations: 34 East 69th Street and 533 West 19th Street. This will be the gallery’s first presentation of the artist’s work since announcing exclusive representation of the Estate of Roy DeCarava in 2018. The exhibitions will be accompanied by a new catalogue, copublished by First Print Press and David Zwirner Books, featuring an essay by art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava.
Approaching photography with a painterly aesthetic and leaving behind the standard practices of documentary photography, DeCarava accepted the modernist challenge to understand the medium as an artistic expression and brought an entirely new vocabulary and thinking to the field. He defined his art, not as existing in the polarities of black and white, but as encompassing an infinite scale of gray tonalities, “sliding into each other,” creating new aesthetic challenges for his silver gelatin process. On view uptown will be a selection of photographs from the sound i saw, DeCarava’s unwavering decades-long exploration of the relationship between the visual and the aural. Created as an artist-made book in 1960 and never before exhibited in its original form, this work of emotional power and formal mastery is known, in particular, for its finding and explicating a depth of human perception, carried by a nuanced and atmospheric depiction. This photography delivers those known and unknown, including Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and others in their milieu, into a sound and a sense rarely seen in visual arts.
Presented in Chelsea, Light Break will showcase a dynamic range of images that underscore DeCarava’s subtle mastery of tonal and spatial elements across a wide, fascinating array of subject matter: from the figural implications of smoke and debris to the “shimmering mirror beneath a mother as she walks with her children in the morning light.” Not simply descriptive, as Turner DeCarava notes in her catalogue essay, “The pictures capture a moment of life that slowly unfolds its intimacy with the world—the strong, youthful beauty of a Mississippi freedom marcher, the nature of trees … all rendered through a translucency of surface with palpable detail recorded in the darkest areas.” These photographs express a strength of imagery, an intent to synchronize and honor the pulse of art as an emergent signal for creative freedom, visualizing its revelatory contours.
Image: Roy DeCarava, Curved branch, 1994 (detail)
A Radical Vision: Roy DeCarava’s The Sweet Flypaper of Life
Free and open to the public
The Great Hall at The Cooper Union, 7 East 7th Street, New York
An evening of discussion and analysis of the place of Roy DeCarava’s (CU, A‘40) oeuvre in American art with a special focus on the much-anticipated republication of The Sweet Flypaper of Life by First Print Press in fall 2018. This volume, which DeCarava created with the poet Langston Hughes in 1955, has been out of print for over thirty years and will be distributed worldwide by David Zwirner Books, D.A.P., and Thames & Hudson.
Leading up to the centennial anniversary in 2019 of the artist’s birth, the panel was moderated by Thelma Golden, and included A.D. Coleman, Radiclani Clytus, Leslie Hewitt, John Stauffer, and Hope Wurmfeld.
First published in 1955, The Sweet Flypaper of Life is a poem celebrating the lives of everyday people. While it’s about listening to a jukebox, about riding the subway alone at night, about children playing at an open fire hydrant, about picket lines and art spaces, this collaboration between artist Roy DeCarava and writer Langston Hughes evokes a unique and lively visual dialogue in a celebration of creativity and community. DeCarava renders photographic images with richly toned silver light, often at the deeper end of the scale, weaving in Hughes’s words and honoring what the authors saw, knew, and felt deeply about life in their city.
Widely considered a classic of photographic visual literature, The Sweet Flypaper of Life was reprinted by public demand several times. This fourth printing is the first authorized English-language edition since 1983, and includes an afterword by the publisher Sherry Turner DeCarava tracing the history and continuing importance of the publication.
The book is available for preorder from David Zwirner Books
Cover Image: The Sweet Flypaper of Life, published by First Print Press, 2018. Photo by Kyle Knodell
September 14, 2018–February 3, 2019
Roy DeCavara is among the artists whose work is included in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Brooklyn Museum in New York. The show, which originated at London’s Tate Modern in 2017 and traveled to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas earlier this year, focuses on black artistic practice from 1963 to 1983, and features the work of over sixty artists active during the movement. In a review of the show for Art in America, Elizabeth Fullerton concluded, "Soul of a Nation is an electric exhibition that attests to how significantly racial biases have limited the canon." David Zwirner announced exclusive worldwide representation of the Estate of Roy DeCarava in June 2018.
As part of the museum’s related programming, art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava will give a talk celebrating the new edition of Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes’ The Sweet Flypaper of Life—a collaboration between photographer and poet that captures daily life in Harlem through a combination of words and pictures. First published in 1955, the book, which is widely considered a classic of photographic visual literature, was reprinted by public demand several times. This fourth printing is the first authorized English-language edition since 1983, and includes an afterword by Turner DeCarava tracing the history and ongoing importance of the publication.
November 8, 2018, 7–9 PM
Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium, 3rd Floor, Brooklyn Museum
(New York, London & Hong Kong – June 8, 2018) David Zwirner is pleased to announce its exclusive worldwide representation of the Estate of Roy DeCarava. The gallery is planning a solo exhibition of DeCarava’s work for 2019 in New York on the occasion of the centennial anniversary of the artist’s birth. Concurrently, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, DeCarava’s best-selling 1955 collaboration with the poet Langston Hughes, will be reissued by First Print Press, with worldwide distribution through David Zwirner Books, D.A.P., and Thames & Hudson.
Art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava states: “Roy devoted almost his entire creative life to photography. Working with discipline for six decades, he consistently produced pivotal and groundbreaking work during one of the longest careers in American art photography. In situations of low light especially, the pictures represent his struggle to find a way to make images speak through the darkness of their origin. It literally takes a while for your eyes to adjust enough to see what’s going on . . . One thing shadows tell you is that nothing worth knowing is instantly fathomable. As Executor of the Estate, I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to partner with the acclaimed David Zwirner gallery under the dynamic leadership of David Zwirner. I am excited at our new endeavor to bring the full breadth of Roy DeCarava’s artistic vision to ever-expanding and diverse audiences worldwide.”
David Zwirner states: “For me, Roy DeCarava constitutes a missing link in the art history of the twentieth century. DeCarava is a giant to those who know his work, and will be a revelation to those who don’t—the extraordinary power and beauty of his images were certainly revelatory to me when I first encountered them. I am just so honored and proud that the gallery can now embark on this journey to further the legacy of this unique artist. We want to thank the Estate of Roy DeCarava, especially Sherry Turner DeCarava for her remarkable dedication and expertise, and the trust she has put in the gallery.”
Over the course of six decades, American artist Roy DeCarava (1919–2009) produced a singular collection of black-and-white photographs of modern life that combine formal acuity with an intimate and deeply human treatment of his subject matter. Grounded by a unified theory of the visual plane, his work displays a subtle mastery of tonal and spatial elements and devotion to the medium of photography as a means of artistic expression. DeCarava created images that carry an emotional impact in their immediate relationship to the viewer, while also revealing less-than-visible terrains. As Bennett Simpson has noted, DeCarava’s images are “suffused with a kind of lyrical haze, a propensity for dim light and shadow, and suggest a language of the self, rich in tone, feeling, and abstraction." 1 DeCarava’s pioneering work privileged the aesthetic qualities of the medium, carrying the ability to reach the viewer as a counterpoint to the view of photography as mere chronicle or document and helping it to gain acceptance as an art form in its own right.
Having trained as a painter and draftsman, DeCarava began working with the camera in the mid-1940s, seeking an inclusive artistic statement for the culturally diverse uptown Manhattan neighborhood of his Harlem youth. Working without assistants and rejecting standard techniques of photographic manipulation, DeCarava honed his printing technique to produce rich tonal gradations, enabling him to explore a full spectrum of light and dark gray values more akin to a painterly mode of expression. Relying on ambient light and a point of view that neither monumentalizes nor sentimentalizes his subjects, he was able to produce a highly original body of artistic work that resonates with visual and emotional significance.
DeCarava himself explained, “My photographs are subjective and personal—they’re intended to be accessible, to relate to people’s lives. . . . People—their well-being and survival—are the crux of what’s important to me.”2
Roy DeCarava (1919–2009) was born in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, and first studied art in the city’s public schools, including at Textile High School, from which he graduated in 1938. He subsequently worked in the poster division of the Works Progress Administration, where he briefly made prints and paintings, prior to being admitted to The Cooper Union. DeCarava studied there until 1940, when he left to attend classes uptown at Harlem Community Art Center (1940–1942) and George Washington Carver Art School (1944–1945), where his elder professional contemporaries included Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Charles White, among others. Some of his earliest influences during this time included painters Vincent van Gogh and the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
DeCarava first used a camera as a means of gathering visual information for his paintings; however, by the mid-1940s, he switched exclusively to photography as his primary means of artistic expression, admiring the medium’s directness. He worked with a handheld 35mm camera, which enabled him to move easily throughout the city, embodying a freedom not dissimilar to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s model of the ambulatory observer, although with a more specific intention to understand his relationship to the subject. Unlike most photographers of his day DeCarava developed and printed his own images himself, enabling him to create over time, a distinct and enduring aesthetic approach that has widely influenced the work of contemporary artists today. He recognized early on that the process of making a photograph begins long before one even picks up the camera and is not complete until the image has been printed to its inner calling.
DeCarava’s first solo exhibition of photography was held in 1950 at Forty-Fourth Street Gallery in New York. Through this show, he met photographer Edward Steichen, at the time the director of The Museum of Modern Art’s new department of photography, who purchased three images for the Museum’s collection. In 1952, with Steichen’s support, DeCarava became the first African-American photographer to win a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. The one-year grant enabled DeCarava to focus full time on the photography he had been creating since the mid-1940s and to complete a project that would eventually result in The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a moving, photo-poetic work in the urban setting of Harlem. DeCarava compiled a set of images from which the poet Langston Hughes chose 141 and adeptly supplied a fictive narration (from the voice of a Harlem resident), reflecting on life in that city-within-a-city. The book, widely considered a classic of photographic visual literature, went out of print several times and was reprinted by public demand. Steichen also included DeCarava in a number of group exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, including The Family of Man (1955), which traveled internationally through 1965, resulting in more recognition of his work overseas.
Also in 1955, DeCarava opened A Photographer’s Gallery on West 84th Street in Manhattan, the first gallery to focus exclusively on fine art American photography in the nation. The gallery mounted twelve exhibitions over the course of its two-year existence, including a solo presentation of DeCarava’s work in 1955.
DeCarava’s photographs have been the subject of numerous solo presentations including those at The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (1969); Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska, Lincoln (1970); University of Massachusetts, Boston (1974); Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1975); Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (1976); Akron Art Institute, Ohio (1980); Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego (1986); and Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1987).
In 1983, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, presented The Sound I Saw: The Jazz Photographs of Roy DeCarava, comprising the artist’s decades-long visual investigation of jazz music, which traveled to Hunter College Art Gallery, New York; Port Washington Public Library, Port Washington, New York; and Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York. A major retrospective of DeCarava’s work was presented at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1996, and traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Addison Gallery of American Art, The Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts; Saint Louis Art Museum; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Currently, DeCarava’s work is included in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, which traveled from Tate Modern, London, to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, and will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, in September 2018.
In 1975, DeCarava joined the faculty at Hunter College, New York, and was named Distinguished Professor of Art of the City University of New York in 1988. During his lifetime, he was the recipient of numerous awards including a Master of Photography Award, International Center of Photography, New York (1998); a Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement, The National Arts Club, New York (2001); and a National Medal of Arts (2005), the highest civilian honor awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the President of the United States.
Work by DeCarava is held in numerous public collections including the Art Institute of Chicago; Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts; George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
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1 Bennett Simpson, “This Air,” in Blues for Smoke. Exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2012), p. 21.
2 Roy DeCarava, cited in Peter Galassi, ed., Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective. Exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1996), p. 35.
Image: Roy DeCarava, Bill and son, 1962 © The Estate of Roy DeCarava 2018. All rights reserved.