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(1919 – 2009), United States

Roy DeCarava Biography

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.

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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

Roy DeCarava
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David Zwirner contemporary art gallery in New York: 19th Street, United States
David Zwirner Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris
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