Roy DeCarava’s Tender Portraits of Harlem Life and Jazz Greats
Roy DeCarava spent much of his life listening to people tell him who he was. “The major definition has been that I’m a documentary photographer,” he told the film-maker Carroll Parrott Blue in 1983. “And then I became a people photographer, and then I became a street photographer, and then I became a jazz photographer.” A pause. “And, oh yes, I mustn’t forget, I am a black photographer. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those definitions. The only trouble is that I need all of them . . . to define myself. I do want to express it all, all of myself.” The word he used to define himself was “artist”.
Today it is likely that an exhibition of DeCarava’s photographs, the subject of which was, for more than 50 years, the lives of black people, will be viewed through a political lens. But this is by no means the whole story. DeCarava, who died in 2009 at the age of 89, grew used to having his work categorised and labelled but, as he consistently and patiently argued, things were more complicated than that.
His black and white photographs are often deceptively simple in their subject matter: affectionate portraits of friends and family in Harlem street scenes and some of the most intuitive photographs of jazz musicians ever made. What distinguishes them is their deep tonality across a range of greys and velvety blacks, which contributes to the emotional depth they convey.
These pictures have been admired by lovers of photography for more than half a century, and exhibited in public galleries and museums since the 1950s. But a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1996, which travelled to venues across the country, brought DeCarava to a wider audience, and both his work and his resolute approach to making it would serve as an inspiration to black American artists in the years that followed. Only recently, however, has he received attention from the upper echelons of the commercial art world. In 2018, David Zwirner gallery announced exclusive representation of his estate and, after two critically acclaimed shows at its galleries in New York in 2019, an exhibition opened this week at its London gallery curated by DeCarava’s widow, the art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava.
“I want to photograph Harlem through the Negro people,” Roy DeCarava wrote in 1952. “I want to show the strength, the wisdom, the dignity.” The late artist’s exhibition at the Underground Museum (curated by his daughter, Wendy DeCarava) displays nearly fifty of his pictures taken after World War II through the turn of the century, largely in his New York neighborhood. In his dedication to representing an “infinite palette of grays,” DeCarava did not use a mechanical flash, preferring instead to convey the essence of who and what he saw, in their own light. As such, his photographs are especially attentive to gestures, tones, and shapes. The images quietly document people as they walk, hold hands, sit at the kitchen table, attend a protest, pick up trash, sing. Two standout images are Girl fixing hair (Ellen), 1952, which depicts an elegant young black woman, and Man with two shovels, 1959, which shows an older person holding a shovel in each hand. His face is nearly obscured, but his hands are illuminated. DeCarava maintains this man’s privacy while rendering the dignity of his labor.
The title of the show, “The Work of Art,” signifies both DeCarava's disciplined practice—his painterly attention to details, his poetic sense of composition—and the potential for art to do things. DeCarava often used his work to document other types of labor: See Woman speaking, street corner, 1950; Four bassists, 1965; Two men working and statue, Washington, D.C., 1975; and, most strikingly, Elvin Jones, 1961. In the latter, with sweat beading gently on his face, head tilted toward the music, eyes nearly closed, the unparalleled jazz drummer is pictured in the middle of his “work of art”—a joyous, other-worldly rapture that transcends the boundaries of language.
How photographer Roy DeCarava captured daily life with aching beauty
"The Work of Art” seems a benign, generic title for any exhibition. As applied to the stirring Roy DeCarava show at the Underground Museum, its meaning reverberates beyond simple description, prompting us to consider not just the objects in question but the practice involved in their making. It invites us to tilt the emphasis from work as a noun to work as a verb.
DeCarava’s work as a photographer was a matter of steady immersion and acute observation. It was an everyday act, and it was personal, a ritual not that different from prayer in its assertion of purposeful connection between individual and wider world.
The show includes about 50 black-and-white photographs spanning 1949 to 2000, with the greatest concentration made in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Wendy DeCarava, the artist’s daughter, served as curator, representing the breadth of her father’s career thoughtfully and with concision, focusing on his chief areas of interest: the streets, the home and jazz.
Born in Harlem, DeCarava (1919-2009) initially studied painting and printmaking. He brought to photography, which he adopted in the mid-’40s, an exquisitely attuned sense of composition and tonal finesse. Any number of images in the show demonstrate DeCarava’s capacity to find and articulate a profound poetry in ordinary life.
“Lingerie” (1950), a view of four boys hanging out on the steps and emergency escape of adjacent New York brownstopractice involved in their making. It invites us to tilt the emphasis from work as a noun to work as a verb.nes, ticks with the precision of a fine watch. The boys, sitting on banisters and leaning off ledges, occupy the cardinal directions of the print, their gestures, glances and white shirts against the charcoal facade beating a circular rhythm around the page, the rhythm of an hour, a day, a world.
Velvety tones in subtle gradation, punctuated by deep, inky blacks and selective gleams of white, are characteristic of DeCarava, whether his subject is a quotidian still life, the stack of dirty dishes at a vacated table or Billie Holiday, tightly framed in performance, face clenched with intensity. His pictures are equally documents and acts of devotion. They register the oscillation between private interior and visible surface, between the sensual and the social.
DeCarava’s work gets introduced in the context of his time and community in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983,” now at the Broad, a vital complement to the Underground Museum’s achingly beautiful show.
Roy DeCarava’s Intimate Photos of Black Americans, from Billie Holiday to a Loving Father
In one of Roy DeCarava’s portraits of Billie Holiday, the jazz singer is caught in a moment of intense feeling, somewhere between the rapture and melancholy that characterizes her music. Her face is faintly visible in the photograph, along with a jeweled teardrop earring to the bottom left of the frame. All else is obscured by shadow, as if this singular performance comprises a world of its own. In this photograph and others, DeCarava captures the intimacy between artists and their craft, framing public performance into something that feels like a private moment.
Over six decades, Roy DeCarava took to the streets of cities like New York City and Washington, DC to cast Black American lives in ways that went beyond documentary or stereotype. Roy DeCarava: The Work of Art at the Underground Museum brings together photographs of everyday intimacies between people, places, and objects. In addition to portraits of jazz musicians at work, interactions between children and adults as well as the contradictions and strangeness of city life are frequent themes of the exhibition.
A father’s hands hold up an infant child in “Bill and son” (1962), while a mother stoops down to eye level with her daughter who sits passenger side in a car in “Woman and girl at car window” (1979). In the latter image, the woman is dressed professionally and has a stack of papers in her lap as if she’s about to enter a job interview or business meeting. Whether she’s reproaching or comforting the child is uncertain, but the photograph portrays the woman performing two jobs at once — the obligations of parenthood and professional life.
In “Graduation” (1949), a young woman in a white dress walks through a New York City street, the formality of her appearance contrasting with the empty lot and trash heap that suggest the city’s neglect of the neighborhood. To the right of the frame, a billboard for a Chevrolet car in the background and broken carriage in the foreground seem to sandwich the scene with two visions of the city, the shiny modernity promised by the car ad undermined by the reality of a crumbling infrastructure. DeCarava was likely struck by the irony of a “Streets for people” sign, funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, when he snapped a photograph of a Washington, DC street in 1975. No people are visible in the photograph, only cars and windowless brick buildings at street level with skyscrapers and the obelisk peak of the Washington Monument looming over the scene.
Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes's The Sweet Flypaper of Life
In 1955, just as the celebrated Family of Man exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art in NY, Simon and Schuster published The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a small volume of photographs by Roy DeCarava with text by Langston Hughes. While Family of Man was later on widely criticized as an attempt to show the universality of human actions in daily life regardless of race and class, The Sweet Flypaper of Life remains a lauded title that conveys Harlem as a microcosm within the larger city. DeCarava's images and Hughes's text offer a record of the transformation of black life from rural to urban in the early-to-mid-20th Century, and the social and personal trauma associated with that transition.
The streets DeCarava shows us are real, dirty, broken oil stained sidewalks; there's water running, tenements torn down and newly built housing projects. Instead of the dream of Harlem, we are shown the reality of poverty associated with this heterotopic space. Yet, as Hughes's narrator repeatedly tells us, "there is so much to see in Harlem!"
In 1952, Harlem-born-and-raised DeCarava was the first African-American photographer to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, yet initial attempts to publish his work were declined by publishers, claiming that they were too radical and subversive to make a profit, even while acknowledging their artistic brilliance. It was only after Hughes, by then a well-established poet and writer, stepped in, following a chance encounter with the photographer on the street, that they were able to create a marketable package. Re-released in 2018 by First Print Press in association with David Zwirner Books, the original paperback edition went on to sell over 35,000 copies within its first year.
n DeCavara's Graduation (1949) a bride-like figure crosses the frame divided into starkly contrasting angles of light and darkness. As she faces the afternoon sun in her white gown, adorned with flowers in her hair, she is isolated in a vacant lot covered with rubble and trash. The young woman's coming-of-age is likened to that of Harlem's, full of promise and hope for the future, yet verging on the uncertainty of shadow: the era of desegregation and struggle for human rights that is yet to come. The image reflects this transitional historical moment in a quietly subversive way.
Illuminating Black Joy, Black Love and Resistance in Harlem
As a child of the Harlem Renaissance, Roy DeCarava grew up surrounded by black artists, writers and thinkers. And while his community often faced racism and discrimination, Harlem residents did not let stereotypes define them. Instead, they sought out ways to challenge these narrow expectations.
When he became the first black photographer to win a Guggenheim fellowship, in 1952, Mr. DeCarava took the opportunity to continue documenting Harlem and its residents. His work became the basis for “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” a best-selling collaboration with Langston Hughes.
In their joint work, Mr. DeCarava and Mr. Hughes celebrated the art of living through difficult times — and they imbued it with spiritual wisdom. First published in 1955 (and now in its fourth printing since 1983), “The Sweet Flypaper of Life” is now available again from First Print Press. The pocket-size book features 141 silver gelatin photographs chosen by Mr. Hughes alongside his fictional landscape reflecting on a city within a city.
Mr. DeCarava was an unknown photographer when he met Mr. Hughes one summer evening in the early 1950s while photographing on the street. Impressed by Mr. DeCarava’s work, Mr. Hughes — already a well-established poet — helped Mr. DeCarava get his first book deal with his publisher, Simon & Schuster. The publisher’s only condition was that Mr. Hughes had to write the accompanying text.
The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes
The story goes that Langston Hughes met Roy DeCarava by accident on a street corner in uptown Manhattan in 1954 and was so taken by his photographs of everyday life in Harlem that he took them straight to his publishers. Simon & Schuster agreed to go ahead only if Hughes, who by then had published several novels, plays and poems, provided an accompanying text. The result, which first appeared the following year, was a hybrid book that is now recognised as a pioneering exercise in merging image and text as well as a revealing glimpse into the everyday lives of Harlem’s black community.
Now reissued by First Print Press in association with David Zwirner Books, which recently took creative charge of the DeCarava estate, The Sweet Flypaper of Life continues to cast a singular spell. Revealingly, DeCarava saw himself not as a documentarian, but as a modernist who valued his quest for “creative expression” over any desire to make “a sociological statement”. His approach was quietly subversive in its upending of traditional – and usually reductive – portrayals of black Americans in the mainstream media, where, as he noted, they were often presented “either in a superficial or a caricatured way or as a problem”.
Buoyed by a Guggenheim Fellowship – the first one given to an African American photographer – he spent a year working in Harlem, where he later said: “The people had no walls up. They just accepted me and permitted me to take their photographs without any self-consciousness.”
As its title suggests, The Sweet Flypaper of Life is an extended poem, both visually and verbally. Hughes chose to evoke the Harlem of the 1940s and early 50s through the eyes of Sister Mary Bradley, a grandmother, whose stoical lyricism speaks volumes about her neighbourhood and the wider America of the time. Her gaze, and that of DeCarava, moves from the personal – her family, her neighbours, her wayward grandson, Rodney, his girlfriends – outwards to the neighbourhood characters, children, streets, the disappearing tenements and newly built housing projects.