Cameron, Julia M.
Coburn, Alvin L.
Talbot,William H. Fox
Biography: Coming of age in the 1940s, photographer Roy
DeCarava saw that "black people in America were not viewed
as worthy subject matter" for art but rather were usually
"portrayed either in a superficial or a caricatured way or
as a problem." Undertaking a representation that was "serious,"
"artistic," and universally "human," he wrote
in regard to his first extended project, on the people of Harlem,
that he wanted to achieve "a creative expression," not
a "documentary or sociological statement."
DeCarava has been photographing now for forty-five years, primarily
in New York City, where he was born in 1919 and still lives. He
uses a small camera, develops and prints his own images painstakingly
(sometimes working for years to get a satisfying effect), and
has always relied on available light, even in cramped apartments
and dim nightclubs, becoming a master of dark tones, not-quite-blacks
that let viewers see into his shadows. From the beginning his
style combined intimacy of tone with a dazzling formal vocabulary.
Most strikingly in interiors--the portraits of saxophonist John
Coltrane performing or the still lifes "Coathanger"
(1961) and "Ketchup Bottles, Table and Coat" --light
and dark values render plastic, expressive qualities, rather than
offering literal records. In images such as the radically compressed
"Force" (1963) or buoyant "Haynes, Jones, and Benjamin"
(1956), the picture frame serves to strengthen the composition's
overall structure; vantage points do not monumentalize or dramatize
in ways made familiar by the work of an earlier generation's documentary
Acknowledged since the 1960s as "the first to devote serious
attention to the black aesthetic as it relates to photography
and the black experience in America," DeCarava earned the
accolade not only because his photographs eschewed journalistic
cliches but also because their independent esthetic pointed the
way toward a long desired condition of "spiritual freedom,"
in critic Alain Locke's words. Considering in what follows the
contours of his career and the significance of his formal achievement,
I will show both the terms and conditions of the autonomy he struggled
for and the constraints and contradic tions such struggle inevitably
engaged. (excerpts from Maren Stange's - "Illusion Complete
More on Roy DeCarava:
Complete Within Itself: Roy DeCarava's Photography
From the Yale Journal of Criticism.
DeCarava: A Retrospective
Notes from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibition.
History: Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes
Photo from the book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life.
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