Roy DeCarava died recently. He was 89. His work has always been important to me. I was lucky to have grown up in New York City in the 50’s and so I saw it then (although he didn’t received the attention he deserved until relatively late in life). I continued to see his work in the intervening years, but I think that work you see when you’re very young is particularly important. I love the way his work pushes the ragged edge of black.
He worked at a time when photography was mostly thought of most often as a documentary medium. He began as a painter … but while using a camera to gather images for his printmaking work he began to gravitate toward photography, partly because of its immediacy but also because of the limitations he saw all around him for a black artist in a segregated nation. “A black painter, to be an artist,” he once said, “had to join the white world or not function — had to accept the values of white culture.”
DeCarava grew up in Harlem, the son of a Jamaican single mother who was an amateur photographer and encouraged him in his art.
He lived in Harlem through many decades of important changes and development to the area. In DeCarava’s childhood, the Harlem Renaissance gave prominence to many black artists, musicians and writers. He was close to poet Langston Hughes, and would later publish a book with him, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, which chronicled the lives of Harlem residents.
Many still regarded photography as a documentary medium, and as a result a great visual lexicon of photojournalism was created by so-called street photographers like Garry Winogrand and Helen Levitt. DeCarava, however, never considered himself of this tradition. Rather his work hearkens to the intense visual imagery and tones that influenced him as an early painter and graphic artist. He cherished the people, places, and events in his pictures and early on developed the means to express his affection. He shoots using only ambient light, then prints so as to coax light expressively out of very dark images or, more rarely, to delineate darker detail in very light ones. The grays in his black-and-white pictures are velvety and warm–qualities he occasionally enhances by purposely shooting out of focus or exposing long enough to show movement.
“One of the things that got to me,” Mr. DeCarava told The New York Times in 1982, “was that I felt that black people were not being portrayed in a serious and in an artistic way.”
He said about his work, “Going outside and meeting the challenge of taking what is and making it yours, that’s what photography does for me.” and “It’s not the subject that interests me as much as my perception of the subject.”
“It doesn’t have to be pretty to be true”, he said in 2001 “…But if it’s true it’s beautiful. And so my whole work is about what amounts to a reverence for life.”