Roy DeCarava, Harlem Insider Who Photographed Ordinary Life, Dies at 89

RANDY KENNEDY – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
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Roy DeCarava, the child of a single mother in Harlem who turned that neighborhood into his canvas, becoming one of the most important photographers of his generation by chronicling the lives of its ordinary people and its jazz giants, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 89 and lived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
His death was announced by Sherry Turner DeCarava, his wife and an art historian who has written about his work.
Mr. DeCarava trained to be 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.”
Over a career of almost 60 years, Mr. DeCarava — who fiercely guarded the manner in which his work was exhibited and whose visibility in the art world remained low for decades — came to be regarded as the founder of a school of African-American photography that broke with the social documentary traditions of his time. While an outspoken crusader for civil rights, he felt that his pictures would speak louder as a record of black life in America if they abandoned the overtly humanist aims of mentors like Edward Steichen.
“I do not want a documentary or sociological statement,” he wrote in his application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he won in 1952, becoming the first black photographer to do so. His goal, he explained, was “a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.”
His books, like “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” a best-selling 1955 collaboration with Langston Hughes, and his most famous photographs — a girl in a pristine graduation dress heading down a desolate, shadowed street; a man ascending wearily from the subway; a stage portrait of John Coltrane playing with closed-eyed fury — were hugely influential, paving the way for younger photographers like Beuford Smith and Carrie Mae Weems.
“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.”
Peter Galassi, the chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, who organized a retrospective of Mr. DeCarava’s work there in 1996, said of him on Wednesday: “He was looking at everyday life in Harlem from the inside, not as a sociological or political vehicle. No photographer black or white before him had really shown ordinary domestic life so perceptively and tenderly, so persuasively.”
Roy Rudolph DeCarava was born in New York on Dec. 9, 1919. He was the only child of Elfreda Ferguson, a Jamaican immigrant, who separated from Mr. DeCarava’s father not long after his birth. As a child he shined shoes and delivered newspapers and ice to make ends meet, while his mother, an amateur photographer, made sure that his artistic talents were nurtured with music lessons and drawing supplies.
He was one of only two black students at a high school for textile studies in the Chelsea section and one of only a few at the Cooper Union School of Art, to which he had won a scholarship to study art and architecture. After two years there, discouraged by the hostile attitude of many white students toward him, he left and enrolled at the Harlem Community Art Center on 125th Street, where he pursued painting while also using his brushes to make signs for the Works Progress Administration. After a stint in the Army during World War II, he returned to New York and left painting behind for printmaking, which he juggled with a job in commercial illustration.
But soon his field work with a camera, meant to feed his printmaking, became his primary interest, and he joined the great postwar street photography world, where practitioners like Helen Levitt, William Klein and Lisette Model were at work with their 35-millimeter rangefinders.
Mr. DeCarava (pronounced dee-cuh-RAV-ah) told Charlie Rose in a televised interview in 1996 that photography was an ideal way to get at the directness he desired from art. “Going outside and meeting the challenge of taking what is and making it yours, that’s what photography does for me,” he said. “It’s not the subject that interests me as much as my perception of the subject.”
Avoiding flash whenever he could, his pictures explored the nuances of shadow perhaps more than any other photographer of his day. The critic Vicki Goldberg, writing in The New York Times, described his best work as “bafflingly dark, suffused with stillness,” adding: “DeCarava reads the city’s small secrets as it goes about its business unawares, and comes in so close that everything outside his concentration falls away.”
The $3,200 he received from his Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to shoot in Harlem full time. Steichen used some of Mr. DeCarava’s work in the landmark “Family of Man” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. At the same time — after he had approached Hughes for help in finding a publisher — he published “Sweet Flypaper of Life,” which uses his work with Hughes’s prose poetry to weave a fictional narrative of Harlem life as told by a grandmother named Sister Mary Bradley.
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