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Roy DeCarava (1919-)Roy DeCarava

Documentary, Portraiture

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 styles.

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 within Itself")

More on Roy DeCarava:

Illusion Complete Within Itself: Roy DeCarava's Photography
From the Yale Journal of Criticism.

Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective
Notes from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibition.

African-American History: Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes
Photo from the book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life.

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