Roy DeCarava

Light Break

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.

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Image: Roy DeCarava, Curved branch, 1994 (detail)

Dates
September 5October 26, 2019
Opening reception
Thursday, September 5, 6–8 PM
Curators
Sherry Turner DeCarava

“There is no such thing as the marginal in [Roy] DeCarava’s photographs…. all of it is alive with the experience of being.”
—Hilton Als, The New Yorker

A portrait of Roy DeCarava, dated 1952.

Roy DeCarava, 1952. © Estate of Roy DeCarava. All rights reserved

“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.

A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled White car and dots, dated 1961.

Roy DeCarava

White car and dots, 1961
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm)

In 1952, DeCarava became the first African American photographer to win a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. In his application, he clearly described his ambition to devote a year to photographing Harlem and its people “morning, noon, night, at work, going to work, coming home from work, at play, in the streets, talking, kidding, laughing, in the home, in the playgrounds, in the schools, bars, stores, libraries, beauty parlours, churches, etc… [But] I do not want to make a documentary or sociological statement. I want a creative expression.”

The cover of a book, titled Roy DeCarava: Light Break.

Roy DeCarava: Light Break
Preface by Zoé Whitley. Introduction and text by Sherry Turner DeCarava

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.

 

Preorder now from David Zwirner Books

 

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.

A photograph by Roy DeCarava, titled Hallway, dated 1953.

Roy DeCarava

Hallway, 1953
Silver gelatin print
Print: 14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm)
A photograph by Roy DeCarava, titled Catsup bottles, table and coat, dated 1952.

Roy DeCarava

Catsup bottles, table and coat, 1952
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm)

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.”

“This exploration of the possibilities of dark gray would be interesting in any photographer, but DeCarava did it time and again specifically as a photographer of black skin. Instead of trying to brighten blackness, he went against expectation and darkened it further. What is dark is neither blank nor empty. It is in fact full of wise light which, with patient seeing, can open out into glories.” —Teju Cole, “A True Picture of Black Skin,” The New York Times

A photograph by Roy DeCarava, titled Garment worker, covered cart, dated 1962.

Roy DeCarava

Garment worker, covered cart, 1962
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm)

“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.”

The artist expressed the guiding ethos of his practice in an interview in 1996, the year New York’s Museum of Modern Art held a major retrospective of his career that traveled to ten further venues: 

 

“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.”

A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Hand and coat, circa 1962.

Roy DeCarava

Hand and coat, c. 1962
Silver gelatin print
Print: 14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm) Framed: 20 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches (51.8 x 41.6 cm)

“Art is the ultimate in communication because art aspires to be the absolute only consideration, and therefore as pure, as pristine and as valuable as possible…. The only language you have to know is vision through your eyes, or sound through your ears, or physicality by touch.” —Roy DeCarava, 1996

 

Image above: Roy DeCarava, Six figures in sunlight, 1985 (detail)

A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Wall Street, morning, dated 1960.

Roy DeCarava

Wall Street, morning, 1960
Silver gelatin print
Print: 14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm) Framed: 20 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches (51.8 x 41.6 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Bill and son, dated 1962.

Roy DeCarava

Bill and son, 1962
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Three men walking, dated 1961.

Roy DeCarava

Three men walking, 1961
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Men walking from shade, 1961.

Roy DeCarava

Men walking from shade, 1961
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm)  Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Swan, dated 1998.

Roy DeCarava

Swan, 1998
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Coltrane #24, dated 1961.

Roy DeCarava

Coltrane #24, 1961
Silver gelatin print

Print: 14 x 11 inches
35.6 x 27.9 cm
Framed: 20 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches
51.8 x 41.6 cm
© The Estate of Roy DeCarava 2020. All Rights Reserved.

A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Coltrane and Elvin, dated 1960.

Roy DeCarava

Coltrane and Elvin, 1960
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm)  Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Graduation, dated 1949.

Roy DeCarava

Graduation, 1949
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Smoke and debris, dated 1995.

Roy DeCarava

Smoke and debris, 1995
Silver gelatin print
11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, Mississippi freedom marcher, Washington, D.C., dated 1963.

Roy DeCarava

Mississippi freedom marcher, Washington, D.C., 1963
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled White glove and cigarette, dated 1962.

Roy DeCarava

White glove and cigarette, 1962
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Figure, dated 1967.

Roy DeCarava

Figure, 1967
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Man looking in pet store window, dated 1952.

Roy DeCarava

Man looking in pet store window, 1952
Silver gelatin print
Print: 14 x 11 inches 35.6 x 27.9 cm) Framed: 20 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches 
(51.8 x 41.6 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Two people sitting, Bangkok, dated 1978.

Roy DeCarava

Two people sitting, Bangkok, 1978
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm)  Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled White car and dots, dated 1961.

Roy DeCarava

White car and dots, 1961
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Mary Lou Williams, dated 1952.

Roy DeCarava

Mary Lou Williams, 1952
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Ellington session break, dated 1954.

Roy DeCarava

Ellington session break, 1954
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Woman walking above, dated 1950.

Roy DeCarava

Woman walking above, 1950
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Curved branch, dated 1994.

Roy DeCarava

Curved branch, 1994
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Oliver Beener Group #4, dated 1956.

Roy DeCarava

Oliver Beener Group #4, 1956
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Percy Heath, dated 1957.

Roy DeCarava

Percy Heath, 1957
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Jimmy Scott singing, dated 1956.

Roy DeCarava

Jimmy Scott singing, 1956
Silver gelatin print
Print: 14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm) Framed: 20 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches (51.8 x 41.6 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled John Coltrane and Ben Webster, dated 1960.

Roy DeCarava

John Coltrane and Ben Webster, 1960
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Oval door, dated 1999.

Roy DeCarava

Oval door, 1999
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Woman in striped blouse, dated 1956.

Roy DeCarava

Woman in striped blouse, 1956
Silver gelatin print
Print: 14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm) Framed: 20 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches (51.8 x 41.6 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Man coming up subway stairs, dated 1952.

Roy DeCarava

Man coming up subway stairs, 1952
Silver gelatin print
Print: 14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm) Framed: 20 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches (51.8 x 41.6 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Man looking at hand, El station, dated 1988.

Roy DeCarava

Man looking at hand, El station, 1988
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Grass, dated 1991.

Roy DeCarava

Grass, 1991
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Coathanger, dated 1961.

Roy DeCarava

Coathanger, 1961
Silver gelatin print
Print: 14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm) Framed: 20 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches (51.8 x 41.6 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Woman at fountain, dated 1964.

Roy DeCarava

Woman at fountain, 1964
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Two men talking, Washington, D.C., dated 1963.

Roy DeCarava

Two men talking, Washington, D.C., 1963
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Dark water, dated 1960.

Roy DeCarava

Dark water, 1960
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Framed: 16 3/8 x 20 3/8 inches (41.6 x 51.8 cm)
A silver gelatin print by Roy DeCarava, titled Soul singer, dated 1954.

Roy DeCarava

Soul singer, 1954
Silver gelatin print
Print: 14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm) Framed: 20 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches (51.8 x 41.6 cm)
A photograph by Roy DeCarava, titled Six figures in sunlight, dated 1985.

Roy DeCarava

Six figures in sunlight, 1985
Silver gelatin print
Print: 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm)

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