Sunday, November 1, 2009

Roy DeCarava, 1919 - 2009

Roy DeCarava, 89, died October 27th in New York City. He and his work were closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance, urban African American life, the Civil Rights Era, and portraits of jazz musicians. He started photographing in 1946 as a sketching substitute for his painting, but it quickly captivated his interests and eclipsed painting for him. Mr. DeCarava was the first African American artist to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952. His first book of photographs was called The Sweet Flypaper of Life, which was a collaboration with poet Langston Hughes, who wrote poetry as a narrative to the images.

One of the better monographs of Mr. DeCarava’s work was Roy DeCarava: Photographs. This was published in 1981 by The Friends of Photography. One of the difficulties of his photographs is that his images were printed in an extreme low key style, which was difficult to reproduce in books. He was the master of this way of printing. His photographs were dark as black velvet, seemingly bottomless, and very low contrast. The emotional effect of this was that they were moody and quiet, insightful and reflective.

In 1987, I had a chance to see a selection of his original photographs at a Friends of Photography workshop in Carmel, California. I’ve never seen prints as dark, lovely, and sensual as his images. His photographs changed what I thought photographs could look like; they were a revelation. The memory of those photographs remains with me to this day. Mr. DeCarava will be missed.

Man coming up subway stairs, New York, 1952

Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, D.C., 1963

[John] Coltrane on soprano [saxophone], New York, 1963

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