Roy DeCarava Dies - From the New York Times

I've been very busy lately, but this caught my attention. If you are into photography - you should know him. When I need inspiration I go to his book.


Roy DeCarava, the child of a single mother in Harlem who turned that neighborhood into his canvas and became one of the most important photographers of his generation by chronicling its people and its jazz giants, has died. He was 89.

His death was announced by Sherry Turner DeCarava, his wife and an art historian who wrote frequently about his work.

Mr. DeCarava trained to be a painter, but while using a camera to gather images for his printmaking work, he began to gravitate toward photography, in part because of its immediacy but also because of the limitations he saw all around him for a black artist in a segregated nation. “A black painter, to be an artist,” he once said, “had to join the white world or not function — had to accept the values of white culture.”

Over a career spanning almost 70 years, Mr. DeCarava — who fiercely guarded how his work was exhibited and whose visibility in the art world remained low for decades — came to be regarded as the founder of a school of African-American photography that broke with the social documentary traditions of his time. While an outspoken crusader for civil rights, he felt that his pictures would speak louder as a record of black life in America if they abandoned the overtly humanist aims of mentors like Edward Steichen.

“I do not want a documentary or sociological statement,” he wrote in his application for a Guggenheim fellowship, which he won in 1952, becoming the first black photographer to do so. His goal, he explained, was instead “a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.”

His books, like “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” a best-selling 1955 collaboration with Langston Hughes, and his most famous photographs were hugely influential, paving the way for younger photographers like Beuford Smith and Carrie Mae Weems. Among the memorable images were those of a girl in a pristine graduation dress heading down a desolate, shadowed street; a man ascending wearily from the subway; and a stage portrait of John Coltrane playing with closed-eyed fury.

“One of the things that got to me,” Mr. DeCarava said in an interview with The New York Times in 1982, “was that I felt that black people were not being portrayed in a serious and in an artistic way.”

Peter Galassi, the chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, who organized a retrospective of Mr. DeCarava’s work there in 1996, said of him on Wednesday: “He had a really natural talent. He just made one beautiful picture after another. He was looking at everyday life in Harlem from the inside, not as a sociological or political vehicle. No photographer black or white before him had really shown ordinary domestic life so perceptively and tenderly, so persuasively.”

A fuller obituary will follow later.


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