“Times are always hard. Manifesting who you are is difficult whether it’s hard out there or not,” photographer Roy DeCarava (1919–2009) told artist Dread Scott, a truth he had learned over nearly a century on earth. “At some point I decided that this relationship to art was the way for me because it made me feel most comfortable. Much of my decision was a reaction to the world as I saw it.”
Born in Harlem and raised by his Jamaican mother, DeCarava pursued his love of art from a young age. He first picked up the camera as a means to gather visual information for his painting practice. But by the mid-1940s photography would be his medium of choice, preferring the directness and flexibility of working with a 35mm camera. Recognizing that photography, like life, was not about the extremes of black and white but the exquisite spectrum that lies in the grays, DeCarava set forth on a search for beauty and truth with the eye of a painter and the heart of a comrade.
The new exhibition, “Roy DeCarava: Selected Works”, offers an expansive look at DeCarava’s poignant chronicle of twentieth-century life, revealing how his aesthetic sensibilities helped elevate photography as an art form. Rather than follow prevailing trends, he created his own techniques, eschewing photo assistants and photographic manipulations in favor of relying on ambient light alone. In DeCarava’s eyes, negative space has a mood and a presence all its own, fostering a powerful sense of intimacy between the viewer and the work.
“My photographs are subjective and personal, they’re intended to be accessible, to relate to peoples’ lives,” DeCarava wrote in the catalogue for his 1996 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. “People, their well-being and survival are the crux of what’s important to me.”
Acts of Resistance
Working at a time when few Black American photographers were recognized, Roy DeCarava became the first to win a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and collaborated with poet Langston Hughes on the groundbreaking 1955 book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life. In his photographs, DeCarava released people from art’s tendency to sentimentalize, monumentalize, and objectify. In doing so, he gave them power, something not readily available to Black people in the United States.
“When I photograph people, even when I alluded to their Blackness, and the best part of their heritage, I was looking at people as human beings, I was, looking at them at the stage before they were called Black,” DeCarava told Dread Scott. “My militancy was always curbed by a sense of, ‘Well, yes, it’s important that I know this, but it’s more important that I do this — that I resist.’ So that kept me quite political, in the soldier sense: committed to social change. There isn’t anything that isn’t political.”
In 1963, DeCarava became one of the founding members of Kamoinge, the Harlem-based Black photography collective that continues to this day. Embracing a fine art approach to the medium, Kamoinge created a space to critique and show work, as well as lively discussions of film, painting, literature, and music. “My feeling is that the Black artist looks at the same world in a different way than a Euro-American artist,” DeCarava said in a 1990 interview. “He has a different agenda… That agenda, at a minimum, is survival as an American. It is freedom.”
Acts of Reverence
Living in twentieth-century America, Roy DeCarava embraced the underdog, those like himself who were driven to survive against the odds. “What I wanted to do was to give people a reason for being alive, a reason to feel good about themselves. And that’s very deliberate on my part. More deliberate than the question of race. I mean that,” he told Dread Scott. “When I work, I want to show them what’s beautiful. I know there are ugly things out there and they know too. What they don’t know is that they can be free, at least within the context of their own minds, and that they can do what they believe in their minds.”
For DeCarava, art was the highest form of civilization in that it could both represent and transmit a culture’s values. Through art, the artist and audience could experience a shared discovery, one that unites us across the divide and helps us understand ourselves and each other. “I made a choice not to get caught in the meanness; I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the possibilities,” DeCarava said. “It doesn’t have to be pretty to be true, but if it’s true it’s beautiful. Truth is beautiful. And so my whole work is about what amounts to a reverence for life itself.”
“Roy DeCarava: Selected Works” is on view at David Zwirner in London until the end of the year.
“Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop” is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum from February 25–May 15, 2022.