Academic journal article Afterimage

The Sounds He Saw: The Photography of Roy DeCarava

Academic journal article Afterimage

The Sounds He Saw: The Photography of Roy DeCarava

Article excerpt

"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. His mother, Elfreda Ferguson, emigrated to New York from Jamaica when she was 17-years-old. Soon after DeCarava's birth, his mother separated from his father, placing the young family in a precarious financial position. Nevertheless, DeCarava was encouraged artistically with music lessons and a steady supply of drawing materials - no small luxury for a single mother. Accepted at The Cooper Union in 1937, DeCarava studied art and architecture. However, the economic hardship of the Depression forced him to continue working while in school. The demands on his time, coupled with the growing alienation he felt as one of the few black students, gave DeCarava the impetus to seek instruction at the Harlem Art Center.(4)

The atmosphere at the Harlem Art Center must have been influential for DeCarava. Rather than sustaining artistic practice, the artists at the Center saw art as part of a wider struggle to achieve recognition and respect. Their platform - "that Negro artists be given the fight to participate to the fullest extent in the art movement in America" are the nascent ideas that later blossomed into the Civil Rights Movement.(5) For DeCarava the Harlem Art Center offered a salvo from the weight of racism, a place to develop aesthetically with the support of a larger community.

Although DeCarava had not yet begun photographing, he did cultivate a relationship with James Latimer Allen, a prominent Harlem photographer who also taught at the Center. Allen's photographs were most often reproduced in the society section of Harlem's leading weekly paper, The Amsterdam News. He was the only photographer to ever receive a Harmon Foundation award, which distinguished Allen as an artist photographer apart from other commercial photographers in Harlem. At first DeCarava found Allen snobbish: "Jimmy dung close to his middle-class values," but he acknowledged the photographer as "a fine craftsman, if not an artist."(6) Although the two represented different backgrounds - Allen was associated with Harlem society while DeCarava came from modest means - they both shared an interest in the mechanics of expression found in photography's light and shadows. Significantly, DeCarava's practice incorporated Allen's ideas on photography as an art form, although it broke away from the confines of the studio, instead seeking African American life in context.

With the advent of war, the Harlem Art Center closed. After a brief stint in the army, DeCarava endeavored to continue his art studies in Harlem. At this juncture DeCarava decided to stop painting and began to work in printmaking, particularly silkscreen and serigraphy. The serigraphs met with critical success and were exhibited in several shows. Encouraged by this response, DeCarava decided to purchase a camera for the purpose of recording subject matter for his prints. The camera, DeCarava initially believed, would hasten the design process for his prints. Time was always a factor for DeCarava as he had to balance his art practice with work. Many of his earliest photographs were taken either before or after work, the subway becoming an important site of investigation. Noting the results he was getting from the camera, DeCarava soon supplanted his printing practice and by 1949 had decided to concentrate solely on photography.

In 1950 DeCarava brought a group of his photographs to Mark Perper, a painter who ran the Forty Fourth Street Gallery. The gallery, which was near DeCarava's office, mostly exhibited paintings. However, Perper was friendly with Homor Page, a protege of Edward Steichen who in 1947 had been appointed to head the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. With Page's help, Perper installed 160 of DeCarava's photographs for his first photography show at the Forty Fourth Street Gallery. In the process, Page also befriended DeCarava, with whom he shared information about darkroom techniques. It was after this juncture that DeCarava began to experiment with a darker tonal range, rendering the lush deep quality associated with his prints.

Page was also instrumental in DeCarava's career in that he brought Steichen to the exhibition. Steichen purchased three prints from DeCarava for MoMA's collection and began to include him in group exhibitions, including the historic "Family of Man." Through Steichen's encouragement, DeCarava applied for the prestigious Solomon R. Guggenheim Fellowship. In his application, DeCarava echoed the ideas first espoused at the Harlem Art Center. Stating he would use Harlem and its people as the subject for his project, DeCarava cautioned, "I do not want a documentary or sociological statement." His statement not only rejects the Documentary aesthetic social mission, but also recalls Harlem Art Center's desire to see a more democratic place in the arts for African American artists. Guarding against a narrow view, DeCarava made it clear in his proposal that he approached the project as "a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret."(7) In April, 1952 DeCarava, at 32-years-old, became the first African American to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship, a cash award totaling $3200 for one year. The award represented the first time DeCarava could support himself fully as an artist.

The photographs taken during the Fellowship period of 1952-53 were prodigious and extraordinary. No other photographer had captured the daily life of Harlem in all its minutiae. For the first time DeCarava was liberated from the strictures of employment. During that year art would not have to fit around his work schedule. Instead, DeCarava was able to devote himself fully to photography. DeCarava made the most of each minute of the Fellowship period. The total output, as the MoMA exhibition makes clear, is a remarkable achievement. Further, DeCarava pushed the boundaries of Documentary and street photography, giving a picture of Harlem that was both highly personal and poetic.

There is an incredible consistency to the photographs of this period. Each picture seeks the incongruity and happenstance among human relations and the urban landscape. Graduation (1949) aptly illustrates this quality: a young girl in a white gown, glowing as it is lit by the sun traversing an abandoned, trash-strewn lot. Most of the photograph is in shadow - purity is palpable only in the light of the girl. Set into the background on the right, a billboard proclaims the virtues of Chevrolet. Both messages, the vestal beauty and the advertisement, seem out of place in the setting, as if in a vision. DeCarava gives us poetry but also gives us an imbrication of details. The trash-strewn curb, the rickety cart and the graffiti are representative of the feelings of alienation in the city.

Perhaps the most moving portraits of this period are of two families DeCarava photographed, the Murphies and the Jameses, both of whom lived in Harlem tenements. In the exhibition the photographs are organized chronologically, allowing a full treatment of his year's exploration. The portraits, most of which were taken indoors using available light, reflect the conditions of domestic life. The mood shifts, from the camaraderie of a Saturday evening gathering to intimate coupling to the bond between parent and child. Illumination comes from harsh, bare bulbs or from the gentle flame of the kerosene lamp, perhaps in use to save money on the electric bill. It is in these details that DeCarava gives breadth to a lived existence, creating a window into Harlem.

Unlike the Documentary aesthetic that formalizes and symbolizes the subject, DeCarava seeks the movement and rhythm of life. In each picture there is willingness and trust between photographer and subject. The portability of the 35 millimeter camera gave DeCarava the ability to emphasize the ordinary moments of life. These photographs, taken from 1949 through 1953, established DeCarava as a photographer and solidified the subject matter he pursues to this day.

Remarkably, the photographs from the Guggenheim Fellowship were not presented to the public in an exhibition. In 1953 there was not a gallery in New York devoted to photography. Helen Gee's famous Limelight Gallery and coffee shop began a year later, in 1954. Although the lack of a venue for the work was a grave blow, DeCarava recognized the value of the work and sought to get it published. In the summer of 1954 DeCarava approached the writer-poet Langston Hughes, whom he knew slightly, to help him find a publisher. Captivated by the photographs, Hughes told DeCarava he would help him and in 1955 Simon and Schuster agreed to publish the photographs if Hughes wrote a text. The project culminated in The Sweet Flypaper of Life. The book contained 140 of DeCarava's photographs. Hughes organized the pictures around a story, allowing the photographs, initially meant to be taken individually, to form a narrative. The pictures give a portrait of African American life that is nuanced and full. It is a world both apart and intrinsic to the life of New York.

After the publication of The Sweet Flypaper of Life, DeCarava recognized the need for a gallery venue. With minimal overhead, DeCarava turned his home at 48 W. 85th St. into A Photographer's Gallery, a place to see photography presented as a fine art. DeCarava featured exhibitions of Harry Callahan and Minor White, whom he probably met through Steichen, in addition to his own work. The audience consisted primarily of neighbors and peers and was open by appointment. Although A Photographer's Gallery only lasted from March 1955 to May 1957, it provided a venue for photographers cultivating a practice outside the commercial realm.(8)

It was during the period of A Photographer's Gallery that DeCarava embarked on his second ambitious project: a series based on jazz musicians. Throughout the 1950s and during the early 1960s DeCarava photographed jazz musicians at work and in private moments. He made portraits of Billie Holiday and Hazel Scott, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and musicians involved in the emerging bebop style such as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins, innovators of the new sound. For DeCarava jazz represented the audio equivalent to photography. In sets, musicians pushed themselves to improvise, lending an immediacy to the performance. DeCarava saw real life experiences as the source for jazz, again a parallel to photography.(9) In reading DeCarava's thoughts on jazz, one notes a strident tone not evident in discussions of his earlier work. In the exhibition's wall label, Galassi, following DeCarava, heroizes bebop at the expense of an earlier era. However, the assessment goes further, saying that bebop has a "fierce artistic independence, opposed to the entertainer's role that had tainted black music since white audiences had begun to applaud it." I am certain that artists such as Count Bassie, Ellington and Holiday would be surprised to learn that their contribution was characterized as amusement or fodder for a white audience. Such a position misrepresents the depth and complexity of the musicians of the Swing era. They labored under the same social constraints imposed upon all African Americans. Statements such as this smack of essentialism and it is something of a surprise to see it written on the usually staid walls of MoMA.(10)

The portraits, however, do capture the intensity and creativity of musicians. Musicians are shown in full motion, distilling the intensity of mood. One of the most striking portraits from this project was Haynes, Jones and Benjamin (1956), a depiction of three musicians on their way to a performance. The jutting angles and shadows from the surrounding architecture form an abstract pattern. The palette of light grays and soft edges recall an urban twilight. The shapes of the building are echoed in the three figures who sway and bend within the cast shadows. The picture is an eloquent look at a moment hidden from the public. In 1964 DeCarava organized his jazz portraits into a book mock-up entitled The Sound I Saw. Unfortunately, the book was never realized due to a lack of interest from commercial publishers. The jazz portraits were seen infrequently until 1982 when the Studio Museum in Harlem presented the complete collection in an exposition also titled "The Sound I Saw."

In 1958, while DeCarava was in the middle of his jazz project, he began working as a freelance photographer, most often for Sports Illustrated. This omission of the commercial photographs in the MoMA exhibition - representing over 10 years of work - is something of a loss, as that period demarcates a period of immense social and cultural change in American history. In his art photography, DeCarava did not seek out major events. The photographs depict personal and intimate moments. Aside from a few photographs from a demonstration in New York State, there is nothing in his art practice that directly depicts the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Thus, the specificity of the immediate postwar period to the 1960s is not evident in the exhibition. Although DeCarava felt his commercial work lacked the veracity of his artwork, the photographs he made on assignment - which include images of Malcolm X and the 1963 March on Washington that are in the catalog - would have made for interesting comparisons between his work and the cultural ferment of the movement that was transforming American culture. Certainly, as was evident in his public role, DeCarava's own political leanings made him an active participant in the movement.

Behind the scenes DeCarava labored to enact important changes among professional photographers. Using his membership in the prestigious American Society of Magazine Photographers, he was active in the Committee to End Discrimination against Black Photographers. However, there was a lack of unity among African American photographers, many of whom did not favor the more direct, confrontational tactics gaining hold. This led DeCarava and several others to form the Kamoinge Workshop. The Kamoinge, meaning group effort in Bantu, sponsored discussion groups and ran a gallery in Harlem. Linking art to the Civil Rights Movement bears a strong relationship to the strategies adopted by the Harlem Art Center during the 1930s, an organization that also saw art as part of larger cultural and social struggle. Because of the Kamoinge Workshop, black photographers such as Anthony Barboza and Louis Draper were able to present their work to a general audience in Harlem. The exhibitions and meetings also gave black photographers the criticism and feedback needed to foster an art practice.

For DeCarava, the world of art and politics collided in 1969 with the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition "Harlem on My Mind." The project was marred from its conception. Rather than present art, the organizers - Thomas Hoving and Allon Schoener - sought to present the history of Harlem as told through photographs, slides and film. Black artists, insulted by the stereotypical treatment and virtual disavowal of the arts movement that grew out of Harlem, quickly organized and began picketing the museum. DeCarava, who was approached to lend photographs, was ambivalent about the issue. After making the powerful decision not to allow his photographs to be used, DeCarava stated, "They wouldn't let me make the selection. I have no confidence in the people doing the show, and I didn't want my pictures wrongly used. The fundamental thing is that blacks want to say their own things about themselves. White people, no matter how sympathetic, can't do it."(11) DeCarava struggled throughout his career to have his photographs recognized as art, only to have the Met exhibition treat photography as documentation.

DeCarava's willingness to speak out about the exhibition gave him a public platform to air his views about photography and deliver an incisive political critique on the treatment of African American artists. In refusing to participate in the exhibition, DeCarava maintained a leadership role for other photographers emerging during the '60s. His uncompromising stance gave him credibility as an activist and as an artist.

In 1975, DeCarava began teaching photography at Hunter College. For the first time since his 1953 Guggenheim Fellowship DeCarava has had time to devote to his craft. His work from the late 1960s to the present reflects the continuation of the street photographs, with the addition of more personal work including portraits of his wife and their four daughters. The tranquil and touching moments from the artist's own life add another dimension to the photographer. As in his early portraits, DeCarava seeks a harmony found in the viscera of everyday activity.

When asked about his favorite photographs DeCarava noted Hallway (1953), a stark and eerie portrait. The portrait speaks volumes about lives in New York's tenement housing. A dank and narrow hallway, lit from above with a bare bulb, recalls a cave. It is an oppressive place, symbolizing the limitations that come of poverty, ill treatment and discrimination. However, the photograph is also startling, and, in DeCarava's words, "break[s] through a kind of literalness" or specificity of time and place, to symbolize a larger idea."(12) In this, the photograph relates back to Documentary photography's synechdochal relationship to a broader social mission, but one with a harsh edge. DeCarava's own childhood memories are embedded in the photograph. It represents the point of recognition, but contains the reality of a lived experience. It is a portrait that could only be taken by someone who knew tenement living. In many ways, Hallway is in dialogue with DeCarava's view of American culture, unintimidated by the gap between the ideal of American democracy and the real, unequal conditions. The photograph struggles to come into focus beyond the palette of gray, ultimately fading off into a fuzzy haze and revealing the depth and complexity of American life. There is despair and alienation in DeCarava photographs, but there is also romance, community and activism.


1. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (New York: Viking Penguin, 1989), p. 1.

2. Quoted in Larry Neat, "To Harlem With Love," The New York Times, October 5, 1969, sec. B, p. 25.

3. Mary Schmidt Campbell, "Introduction" in Harlem Renaissance Art of Black America, (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1987), p. 16.

4. Details of DeCarava's childhood are culled from Sherry Turner DeCarava, "Pages from a Notebook" in Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996), pp. 41-56.

5. Quoted in Kim Carlton Smith, "A New Deal For Women: Woman Artists and the Federal Art Project," PhD Dissertation, Rutgers University, p. 224.

6. Elton Fax, "Roy DeCarava," in Seventeen Black Artists, (New York: Dodd Mead & Co., 1971) p. 178.

7. Peter Galassi, "Introduction," in Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996), p. 19.

8. Jane Livingston, The New York School Photographs 1936-1963, (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Inc., 1992), p. 266; Galassi, p. 22.

9. Fax, p. 185.

10. For further clarification see Fax, p. 184. Fax contextualizes DeCarava's interest in jazz with his social view: "DeCarava believes that the black person has an affinity with photography just as he has with jazz. He contends that the person whose life is devoted to the elemental task of surviving is forced by circumstances to be more realistic and more truthful than the person who isn't. The black man has to 'read' the white man accurately and swiftly. If he doesn't, his chances of surviving the latter's tyranny are considerably diminished."

11. Ibid, p. 103.

12. Galassi, p. 28.

MELISSA RACHLEFF is currently a Fellow at the Smithsonian Institute's Center for African American History and Culture. She is also a contributor to the Smithsonian Institute Press's recent publication Visual Journal, a study of five African American photographers in Washington, D.C. and Harlem.

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