Roy Rudolph DeCarava, December 9, 1919 – October 27, 2009, was a visual artist who received critical acclaim for his photography from Harlem, NY.
Initially engaging and imagining the lives of African Americans and jazz musicians in the communities where he lived and worked.
In a career that spanned nearly six decades, DeCarava rose to prominence as a founder in the field of black-and-white fine art photography, advocating an approach to the medium based on the core value of a individual and subjective creative sensibility, which was separate and distinct from the “social documentary” style of many predecessors.
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Early life and education
Roy DeCarava was born in Harlem, New York on December 9, 1919.
DeCarava came of age during the Harlem Renaissance when African American artistic activity and achievement flourished in the literary, musical, dramatic, and visual arts.
After graduating from Textile High School in New York in 1938, DeCarava began working independently as a visual artist.
He continued his studies at Cooper Union (1938-1940), where he studied painting, architecture and sculpture.
DeCarava developed 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 initially began using photography as a recording medium and as a reference for his paintings, but became so captivated by the medium that he began to devote all his time to it and championed gelatin silver photography. in black and white as an art form in its own right. .
He used his camera to produce striking studies of everyday black life in Harlem, capturing the varied textures of the neighborhood and the creative efflorescence of the Harlem Renaissance.
Resisting explicit politicization, DeCarava used photography to counter what he described as “black people…not being portrayed in a serious, artistic way.”
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DeCavara was drafted into the Army in 1942, where he would first be sent to Virginia and then stationed at Fort Claiborne, Louisiana in the Jim Crow South.
There, DeCarava experienced such intense racism that he collapsed. In Peter Galassi’s biographical essay for the MoMA exhibition, the artist recalls: “The only place that wasn’t segregated in the military was the psychiatric ward of the hospital. I stayed there for about a month. I was in the military for about six or seven months altogether, but I had nightmares about it for twenty years.
DeCarava was married for forty years to art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava. The two collaborated on exhibitions and publications during DeCarava’s lifetime and she continued to promote his work after his death.
According to his obituary, the two met when Turner DeCarava interviewed him for a public program at the Brooklyn Museum. http://decarava.org/tribute.html
A career in fine art photography
DeCarava has produced five published art books, including The Sound I Saw and The Sweet Flypaper of Life, as well as iconic museum catalogs and retrospective surveys from Friends of Photography and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The subject of at least 15 solo art exhibitions, DeCarava was the first African-American photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, and through that fellowship was able to photograph his community and New York City for a year; expressing creative first impressions through the black and white gelatin silver process.
His first photo exhibition was in 1950, at the Forty-Fourth Street Gallery in New York, and he soon found a mentor in Edward Steichen, director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art.
Gradually, DeCarava became known for his dedication to the field of visual arts and for his own work in this field, including many distinctive black-and-white and gelatin silver photographs of great American musicians.
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His work has also appeared on several album covers, such as Porgy and Bess, by Miles Davis, Bless this House, by Mahalia Jackson, Flamenco Fire by Carlos Montoya and Big Bill’s Blues, by Big Bill Broonzy.
DeCarava has received honorary degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design, Maryland Institute of Art, Wesleyan University, New School for Social Research, Parsons School of Design, and the Art Institute of Boston for his contributions. to American art.
In 2006, he received the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor given to artists by the United States government.
DeCarava encouraged other fine art photographers and believed in the accessibility of the medium.
The artist is a kind of seer and by nature he is optimistic because he believes in the future.- Roy De Carava
From 1955 to 1957, at his own expense, he created and maintained A Photographer’s Gallery in his apartment in a brownstone building at 48 West 85th Street, New York, in which works by the great names of American photography were exhibited. of the time.
In 1963 he co-founded and became the first director of the Kamoinge Workshop, a Harlem-based collective that supported the work of black photographers through exhibitions, public programs, group reviews, and published portfolios.
He taught for many years at Hunter College in its undergraduate and MFA programs.
In 1972, DeCarava received the Benin Creative Photography Award for his contributions to the black community as a creative photographer.
Roy DeCarava received the Cooper Union President’s Citation Award in 1996 and the Cooper Union Alumni Association (CUAA) Augustus Saint Gaudens Award in 2007.
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He was inducted into the Cooper Union Hall of Fame in 2009.
DeCarava died in New York City on October 27, 2009.
Art historical background and commentary
Having come of age in the 1940s, DeCarava appears simply iconoclastic both in his approach to photography, a medium strongly identified with probative truth, and in his aesthetic ambitions to, as he puts it, “pierce a kind of literality”. and “expressing some things that I felt. Continuing his quest to create a visually self-contained color photographic subject, DeCarava endured decades of bitter misunderstanding. He repeatedly pointed out that despite his “reputation as a documentary filmmaker[y] photographer, … I really never was”, and reiterated his resolutely modernist concern to achieve “a creative expression”, rather than a “documentary or sociological purpose”. Although DeCarava never worked in film himself, he grew up in the era of black-and-white cinema and, in an interview much later in his career, said, “I think I absorbed the visual aesthetic of black and white. white films, so when I started taking pictures, it was natural.
His most important work is Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective, with over 200 black and white photos spanning the late 1940s through the 1990s.
Another work is The Sweet Flypaper of Life.
Published in 1955, it is a pictorial account of family life in Harlem with photographs by DeCarava and text by Langston Hughes.
DeCarava wrote, “Despite the poverty, you see people with a dignity and a certain quality that contrasts with where they live and what they do.”
His Guggenheim Fellowship helped fund the project as he spent a full year shooting the photos for the book.
Photo credit: 1) Roy DeCarava. 2) Dancers. 3) Haynes, Jones and Benjamin, Ellenville, New York 1956. 4) Bob Blackburn.