The Sounds He Saw: The Photography of Roy DeCarava

By Rachleff, Melissa | Afterimage, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

The Sounds He Saw: The Photography of Roy DeCarava


Rachleff, Melissa, Afterimage


"The problem of the Twentieth Century," W. E. B. DuBois wrote in 1903, "is the problem of the color line."(1) There is indeed an ugly underside to America, one that many find difficult to acknowledge, but one that is also distinctly American. As the current debates surrounding American society reveal, cultural difference remains a contested ground upon which notions of identity, race and representation are fought. In a hierarchy based upon the acculturation of wealth and power, the struggle can become pernicious.

A native of Harlem, the photographer Roy DeCarava has confronted racism and its effects for more than 40 years. Remarkably, he has maintained an unwavering commitment to portraying daily life in New York City. DeCarava's central subject is African American life. Fellow photographer James Hinton has remarked, "DeCarava was the first black man who chose by intent to document the black and human experience in America."(2) In so doing, DeCarava enlarged upon the Documentary style by emphasizing a personal vision rather than a social record.

A major retrospective of DeCarava's work is currently traveling across the United States. Organized by Peter Galassi, chief photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the exhibition and catalog, "Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective" represents the largest and most comprehensive exhibition devoted to the work of this significant American photographer. The survey presents over 200 black and white photographs spanning the late 1940s to the present. DeCarava has produced an immense body of work: from his first photographs of life in Harlem to his stunning (and little seen) jazz series, to his street photographs of New York City to his recent lyrical studies of nature. "Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective" is the first project on the photographer in more than 25 years, and the first retrospective to be presented in the photographer's hometown, New York City. Galassi worked closely with DeCarava and his wife, art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava, in organizing the exhibition. All but four of the photographs are from DeCarava's own archive. Despite the breadth of the exhibition, Galassi elected to omit all commercial work. This omission is double-edged: it reinforces DeCarava's seriousness about photography as an art, a stance he has maintained throughout his career, but it also denies viewers access to another side of the photographer, one of an engaged Civil Rights activist.

DeCarava's photographs belong to postwar street photography, a style that found an audience in the emerging photography galleries and photography exhibitions of the 1950s and 1960s. The shift from the popular photographic forms - the book or photographic essay - to the individual print, coincided with the recognition of photography as an art form and, with that, the rise in photography's market value. DeCarava's contemporaries Garry Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank, to name a few, also investigated the peculiarities and aspects of everyday American life. While maintaining a commitment to the "real," these photographers broke from the humanist, and essentially optimistic, spirit of the Documentary style, to reveal the complexities of race, class and identity.

DeCarava, born in 1919, grew up in Harlem amidst the period known as the Black Cultural Renaissance, an epoch in which African American artists were accorded serious critical attention and patronage. Harlem saw an influx of poets, writers, performers, musicians and artists throughout the 1920s. As art historian Mary Schmidt Campbell noted, the Renaissance brought to light the "fervent belief in the beauty and nobility of an African homeland and the deep cultural cleft between Black and White America."(3) The Renaissance legitimated so-called "race-conscious" art and fostered the idea that art could stem from the experiences of African Americans.

This fecund period had its impact on DeCarava's childhood.

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