Shades of Gray Roy Decarava Has Captured Art of 20th-Century Living on Film

By Jeff Daniel Of The Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 29, 1997 | Go to article overview

Shades of Gray Roy Decarava Has Captured Art of 20th-Century Living on Film


Jeff Daniel Of The Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


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 finest artists. 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 look. 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 interesting? "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. …

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