“I happen to believe that photography is not about black and white; it’s about grays.” – Roy DeCarava
Born in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in 1919, Roy DeCarava came of age during the Harlem Renaissance, when artistic activity and achievement among African Americans flourished across the literary, musical, dramatic, and visual arts.
After graduating from Textile High School in New York City in 1938, DeCarava independently began working as a visual artist. He continued his formal education at Cooper Union (1938–1940), where he studied painting, architecture, and sculpture. DeCarava expanded upon this early training at the Harlem Art Center (1940–1942) as well as the George Washington Carver Art School, where in addition to painting he began to experiment with printmaking.
DeCarava first began to use photography as a means to record and as reference for his paintings, but was so enthralled by the medium that he began devoting all of his time to it and championed black and white silver gelatin photography as an art form of its own. He used his camera to produce striking studies of everyday black life in Harlem, capturing the varied textures of the neighbourhood and the creative efflorescence of the Harlem Renaissance. Resisting explicit politicisation, DeCarava used photography to counter what he described as “black people…not being portrayed in a serious and artistic way.”
DeCavara was drafted in the Army in 1942, where he was first be sent to Virginia, and then stationed in Fort Claiborne, Louisiana, in the Jim Crow South. There, DeCarava experienced a racism so intense that he broke down. In Peter Galassi’s biographical essay for the MoMA show, the artist recalled: “The only place that wasn’t segregated in the army was the psychiatric ward of the hospital. I was there for about a month. I was in the army for about six or seven months altogether, but I had nightmares about it for twenty years.”
DeCarava moved fluidly across subjects. In his series The Sound I Saw (begun in 1956, exhibited at The Studio Museum in Harlem in 1983, and published as a book in 2001), he not only chronicled New York jazz luminaries like Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, and John Coltrane, but also captured their influence on visual culture. The deeply personal style of his portraits evinces his sympathy for his subjects. Noting this, publisher and photographer Alan Thomas commented on DeCarava’s “gentle humanism.”
DeCarava’s Harlem photography of the late 1940s and early 1950s garnered the attention of Edward Steichen, who was then director of MoMA’s Department of Photography. At Steichen’s urging, DeCarava applied for and won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in 1952, becoming the first African American photographer to receive this honor. The fellowship enabled him to spend a year shooting hundreds of photographs documenting Harlem life. Steichen included several of DeCarava’s photographs in MoMA’s landmark 1955 exhibition The Family of Man. That same year, DeCarava collaborated with poet, writer, and social activist Langston Hughes to produce The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a book featuring 140 of his photographs accompanied by a narrative written by Hughes.
Avoiding the overtly documentary approach evident in the photography of, for instance, James Van Der Zee or Gordon Parks, DeCarava combined pointed political commentary with aesthetic and formal rigor. His attraction to moody lighting and darker tones is clear in works like Man Coming Up Subway Stairs, a photograph for which he spent many hours searching for the perfect subject. As he once described, he strove for “the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which…only a Negro photographer [could] interpret.”