ROY DeCarava has walked and talked with giants.
Not the inflated, '90s-era run-of-the-mill giants, but the real
deal - that class of historical figure which rightfully acquires
the tag of legendary, larger-than-life . . . mythical.
John Coltrane. Langston Hughes. Duke Ellington. Paul Robeson.
Billie Holliday. Louis Armstrong.
Pretty good company.
But DeCarava, a life-long resident of New York City, moves just
as easily among the masses: on the bustling Harlem streets, in the
darkened hallways of urban brownstones, in the trenches of the
civil rights movement marches.
And for more than half a century, DeCarava has hauled his
camera wherever he's walked. For that, we should be thankful.
A retrospective of DeCarava's work now hangs on display at The
St. Louis Art Museum and runs through Aug. 10. With its nearly 200
photographs, the exhaustive exhibition provides convincing proof
that DeCarava is not only one of the greatest African-American
photographers of this century, but he is also one of our country's
And now, at the age of 77, DeCarava seems finally to be getting
his due. The touring retrospective - which premiered at New York's
Museum of Modern Art last spring - has put the photographic master
in the limelight: television appearances, countless press
interviews, speaking engagements.
Fair or not, it's rare that an artist gains proper recognition
while he still walks the earth, and the humble DeCarava appreciates
that he is around to catch the accolades.
"Oh, this his been wonderful, just truly amazing," DeCarava
says from his Brooklyn home. In a voice that is somehow both raspy
and sweetly smoothing, he breaks into a laugh and adds that the
newfound recognition has "kept me so busy that I've hardly had time
to work on anything new."
It's not as if DeCarava needs to add to his portfolio or, for
that matter, to work on his technique. His work contains a
remarkable consistency despite working though decades of social
change and artistic movements.
As most critics have noted, that consistency owes a lot to
DeCarava's use of a gray palette. Avoiding what he terms the
"unnatural use of high contrast," the photographer manages to
create portraits that invite - sometimes even demand - a closer
Life rarely entails black-and-white simplicity, and no one
realizes this more than DeCarava. Still, he admits that his
trademark style wasn't something he set out to do.
"I've always just tried to put across an image of how I see,"
he explains. "Why change or manipulate a scene which I already find
"The photograph represents how I see the scene, my own view.
That isn't to say that other people might not have that view or
that mine is better than anyone else's. Basically, it's the same
situation that you have with any artist."
DeCarava's observation is important, for it gets to the crux of
a debate that has always surrounded photography: with it's ability
to reproduce images so clearly, is this a medium more geared to
reportage than artistic expression?
Not at all, DeCarava insists.
"People see the technical aspect of photography, and then they
think it becomes more of a craft," he says, noting that these same
critics fail to realize that all the arts - especially drawing,
painting and sculpture - revolve around technical precision.
And DeCarava is quick to point out the artistic side of his
work - the detailed composition, the masterful use of light and
shadow - and downplay his significance as a chronicler of
20th-century African-American life. …