To those aware of his legacy, Harlem-born photographer Roy DeCarava is a giant of American art photography. His practice, spanning six decades of American history, recorded aspects of African American life and culture over decades of drastic change. He was one of the first artists to photograph the ins and outs of life in Harlem in the 1950s, as well as the black civil rights movement in the 1960s in New York, Washington, and across the South. Iconic American jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday also graced his lens. Set apart from documentary photography, his intimate, humane glimpses into the lives of his subjects explore the medium of photography as a means of artistic expression. Through shooting only with available light, and dramatic juxtapositions of light and dark, his images create the impression of a painterly quality. His photographs are less a record and more a collection of poetically composed glimpses of genuine human experiences.Read More
Born in Harlem in 1919, DeCarava knew well the New York City streets and neighbourhoods that became his lifelong subject. Trained as a painter and draftsman, his path to photography was slow. In 1938, after graduating from the 18th-Street Textile High School, he briefly served in the poster division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Initially studying fine art at a tertiary level at The Cooper Union, he transferred to WPA-sponsored Harlem Community Art Center (1940–1942), followed by the George Washington Carver Art School (1944–1945).
DeCarava initially used his camera only to gather source material for printmaking, shifting to exclusively working with a camera in the mid-1940s. In 1952, with the support of Edward Steichen, then-director of photography at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, he became the first African American photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. The resultant project culminated in The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955)—a book of photographs and words exploring life in Harlem, made in collaboration with the poet Langston Hughes. Traversing the streets with a small portable 35mm camera, DeCarava was not an objective documentarian; rather, he pursued 'a creative expression' of the lives of African Americans. In the 1990s he extended this expressive approach to nature photography.
Over his career, before his death in 2009, DeCarava produced five books of photography and appeared in countless solo and group exhibitions across the United States, and several overseas, in addition to working as a freelance photographer for magazines and album covers. He also taught as professor at Hunter College from 1975. Among his many accolades, the artist received the National Medal of Arts from then-United States president George W. Bush in 2006.
Ocula | 2019
Harlem-born photographer Roy DeCarava, a jazz artist both in subject and technique, is the focus of two concurrent exhibitions at David Zwirner's New York spaces, the gallery's first showing of DeCarava's work since announcing exclusive representation of his estate.Read More
A new exhibition of Roy DeCarava's photographs at David Zwirner in New York is an astonishing document of American life in the second half of the 20th century.Read More Related Press Your Concise New York Art Guide for Fall 2019 10 September 2019, Hyperallergic
As always, there are many wonderful exhibitions, film festivals, and art events taking place throughout the fall in New York. We've put together our recommendations, and hope that they encourage you tRead More Related Press Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes's The Sweet Flypaper of Life 1 August 2019, The Brooklyn Rail
In 1955, just as the celebrated Family of Man exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art in NY, Simon and Schuster published The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a small volume of photographs by Roy DeCRead More Related Press Roy DeCarava’s Intimate Photos of Black Americans, from Billie Holiday to a Loving Father 30 April 2019, Hyperallergic
LOS ANGELES — In one of Roy DeCarava's portraits of Billie Holiday, the jazz singer is caught in a moment of intense feeling, somewhere between the rapture and melancholy that characterizes her musicRead More