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)
“I don’t believe one should be bound by having good light, which usually means plenty of light. I think that things happen all the time in all kinds of light circumstances and that one should always try to be moved not by the light condition, whether it’s good or bad, but by the importance of what it is you’re seeing.” —Roy DeCarava, 1990
Born in New York’s Harlem neighborhood a century ago, in 1919, DeCarava’s interest in art was encouraged at an early age by his mother. “At some point I decided that this relationship to art was the way for me because it made me feel most comfortable,” he explained. “Much of my decision was a reaction to the world as I saw it. Art provided me with another kind of forum or relation.”
Initially a student of painting, DeCarava’s influences included Vincent van Gogh and the muralist Diego Rivera. He first used a camera to gather images for his paintings, but by the mid-1940s he had switched exclusively to photography. His mission was clear from the outset, and he approached the medium with unique aesthetic intuition combined with a strong sense of social and collective responsibility that focused his eye on the community where he was raised.
Light Break presents a wide-ranging selection of DeCarava’s photographs with a preface by Zoé Whitley, an American curator based in London, and an introduction and essay by curator and art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava. Titled “Celebration,” Turner DeCarava’s essay considers the artist’s singular poetic vision, his timeless portrayals of individuals and places, and his mastery of composition and photographic printmaking.
DeCarava was equally clear about his use of light and tone. As curator Zoé Whitley writes in her preface to the book Light Break, the tones in the artist’s photographs range “from the brightest rays of light to a scintillating obsidian darkness.”
He explained his uncompromising approach in an interview with cultural historian Charles H. Rowell: “I have earned a reputation for being on the dark side…. You can’t dictate to light…. I am not afraid to take pictures under impossible conditions…. Maybe it’s because I want them so badly that they do, somehow, come out. I have an affinity for the middle tones and the dark tones because they’re beautiful, and they appeal to me on a very subjective level. I love the quality of so many shades of dark, so many different shades of gray…. Photography should be what you want it to be, and it should serve your purpose. You should not be restricted or intimidated by the process, its theories, or its myths.”
The artist considered this photograph of a hallway in a tenement building an important work that reminded him powerfully of his life in Harlem.
As many writers have argued, the artist’s attitude toward light is not only formal, but also important in relation to the subject matter of his images. Photographing his locale in Harlem and the lives of those surrounding him “from a kind of total consciousness,” as he described it, DeCarava insisted on capturing things as he found them. Registering private moments and public scenes, both illuminated or in shadow, wholly or in part, DeCrava’s work unites an understanding of his medium with a sense of empathy for his subjects, be they human or inanimate—composing “a world shaped by blackness,” as he told filmmaker, director, and author Carroll Blue in 1983. The New York Times critic Andy Grundberg observed in 1982 that even works like Catsup Bottles, Table and Coat (1952) “suggest human presence by emphasizing its absence.”
“All photographers who work as artists face the same dilemma,” the photographer, curator, and writer James Alinder notes, “to reveal subjects in such a way that they become precise equivalents of the artist’s understanding both of life and of the medium of photography. When the vision is lucid, as it is in these photographs by Roy DeCarava, there is no conflict between form and content…. The intensity of feeling communicated in them is as basic as breathing; they are as complex as life’s totality. Passionate and personal, yet public and aware, DeCarava extends and clarifies our world and our medium.”
“My work is propelled by a belief system, which is very strong and it propels me to get through difficulties to the things that I think are important.... One of the strongest values we have is this democratic ideal, for want of a better word, of the value of the many, the value that the will or the goodness of the majority is important, even more important than the individual…. What I wanted to do was to give people a reason for being alive, a reason to feel good about themselves…. Truth is beautiful. And so my whole work is about what amounts to a reverence for life itself.”