A photo by Roy DeCarava, titled Woman standing, tree, dated 1987.

Roy DeCarava: Light Break

Excerpt from David Zwirner Books

These past weeks, we’ve been trying to come up with thoughtful ways of staying in touch with everyone—our artists as well as art lovers all around the world. We’ve ramped up our podcast schedule, and now we’ll be sharing some of our favorite titles from David Zwirner Books with you in a new way. Every week our newsletter will introduce a book that we will excerpt—at great length, often in full—on our website. To be updated on upcoming book excerpts and other news, sign up to our newsletter here and follow us @davidzwirner.

We hope you enjoy. And, as Rainer Maria Rilke once said, "Live for a while in these books."


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This week, we’re revisiting Light Break, a catalogue of photographs by Roy DeCarava, who famously said of his work: “My pictures are immediate and yet at the same time, they’re forever. They present a moment so profoundly that it becomes an eternity.”


Time is something we all seem to be so easily losing track of as the days become one. But DeCarava’s entire practice—from his portrayals of communal life in Harlem to his innovations in silver gelatin printing—speaks of an unfaltering attention to the moment, what you might call “presentness’’ or “mindfulness’’ today. 

DeCarava continues to attract a great many young fans (see the photographer Tyler Mitchell, for example, who features on our podcast this week and led a walkthrough of the DeCarava exhibition at our New York gallery last fall). DeCarava’s patience and generosity when it came to humanity and community allowed his work to transcend his moment, and hopefully—if we can follow his lead—can help us transcend ours.

Image: Roy DeCarava, Woman standing, tree, 1987 (detail)

The cover of the book, DeCarava Light Break, published 2019.

“Too often the true measure of artists’ greatness is recognized not in their lifetimes but becomes manifest through their aesthetic afterlives, in the work of subsequent generations. While this is true of the late photographer Roy DeCarava (1919–2009), relative anonymity came also with that rare gift, the respect of one’s peers. Fellow photographer Edward Steichen included DeCarava’s work in a seminal MoMA exhibition as early as 1955. Beloved and brilliant poet Langston Hughes provided the text for DeCarava’s classic volume, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, first published that same year. Among extensive professional accolades, he received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 1952—the first awarded to an African-American artist for photography—and in 2006 the National Medal of Arts, the United States’ highest honor granted to artists.’’

Read the full Preface by Zoé Whitley

Watch the following video for an introduction to the work and life of Roy DeCarava, narrated by the art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava.



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