Roy DeCarava: the sound i saw
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, Club audience at intermission, 1958 (detail)
The gallery’s first presentation of Roy DeCarava’s work in concurrent exhibitions titled Light Break and the sound i saw shows the artist’s powerful, atmospheric practice both broadly, in his many photographs that “capture a moment of life,” and specifically in an extensive project focused on jazz musicians.
DeCarava was born in New York’s Harlem neighborhood in 1919. He first used a camera to gather images for paintings, but by the mid-1940s, he had switched exclusively to photography. The artist describes having been being drawn to jazz as part of “a kind of total consciousness,” of his daily life in Harlem.
Compiling images he had been taking for more than twenty years, DeCarava designed, wrote, and put together the sound i saw as an artist book in the early 1960s. Unpublished for almost half a century, the project records his photographic exploration of the relationship between the visual and aural through his gaze on legendary musicians Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday, among many others.
In a Preface, DeCarava writes:
“This is a book about people, about jazz, and about things. The work between its covers tries to present images for the head and for the heart, and like its subject matter is particular, subjective and individual. It represents pictures and words from one head and one heart.
Jazz to me is a musical expression of subjective individual emotions by particular individuals in their own unique way. Everything a jazz man feels, sees, hears, everything he was and is becomes the source and object of his music. It is a music purchased with dues of hardship, suffering and pain, optimism and love.
The story, ideas and incidents related are expressed as a stream of images as seen and felt through the eyes and mind of a jazz musician on a stage. Everything that happens takes place on stage, between sets, between smiles, or an interval between a manʼs facial expressions. It is a moment, a lifetime or a set, the time that elapses is not important.
What is important are the ideas and experiences, what they evoke and how theyʼre expressed. Their significance is relative and will depend on who you are and what you are. They will mean different things to different people, which is as it should be and was so intended.
If it mirrors your feelings or evokes others, that is also the hope and intention.”
The photographs in the sound i saw portray not only the musicians playing and at rest, but also the surrounding environment and other facets of life. “I photograph musicians as people, not as musicians,” DeCarava told cultural historian Ivor Miller. “I don't feel it's necessary to photograph them while playing. What I respond to is their commitment to what they do. The intensity that they bring to life at that moment...I worked with [John] Coltrane and [Eric] Dolphy the same way I work with everything. I respect what I'm looking at. I do not intrude. I stay back, and I wait until something happens. And then I take my picture, and then I wait again…. I know something is going to happen. I know that it's beautiful. It's just a question of my timing and my ability to be open enough to see what is there.”
The artist felt a distinct affinity between his work as a photographer and that of jazz musicians. “People have asked me over the years, ‘Well, do you feel that jazz is related to making images?’” he explained in conversation with the bassist Ron Carter. “I think that it is to a great degree, and I’m well aware of that and find it useful. Primarily, there’s an improvisational mode that is very important from the layman’s point of view, in terms of what jazz is. I think this is really the key thing…. To the same degree, there is this quality of improvisation when one takes a picture. People think of taking pictures as a single entity…But it isn’t that way. It’s the continuity of taking pictures…. It’s the timing that one develops in walking around a subject, making images and trying to penetrate closer and closer to the center of your feelings.”