Anne Darling Photography

Roy DeCarava (1919-2009)

Roy DeCarava was born in New York City in 1919 in the Harlem district to a single mother who was an immigrant from Jamaia. As a child he drew avidly, using the sidewalks as canvases for his chalk drawing of cowboys and Indians.

When he left school he worked as an artist for the Works Progress Administration creating posters during the day and studying painting and lithography by night, although he was eventually forced to quit his studies due to prejudice and he went instead to the Harlem Art Center.

He started using photography around 1946 as reference material for his paintings but became more and more involved with it as a means of expression in its own right and a way to capture images with an immediacy that painting could not provide. Most of his photographs were of the people and places he roamed through at night as during the day he was employed full-time.

photographs by roy decarava
Above: Cover Image of Photographs by Roy DeCarava

His first of 25 solo exhibitions was in a Manhattan gallery attended by Edward Steichen who was then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. Steichen bought two of De Carava's prints and persuaded him to apply for a Guggenheim fellowship which he was awarded in 1952, the first black artist ever to be awarded a Guggenheim.

photographs by roy decarava the sweet flypaper of life cover

By 1955 Roy DeCarava was firmly established as a photographer and worked with the poet Langston Hughes on The Sweet Flypaper of Life , the story of a black woman's life in Harlem which includes more than 140 of DeCarava's images.

Other major achievements include:

  • Opening of Photographers Gallery in New York in the mid-1950s
  • Co-founded the Komoinge Workshop for Black Photographers in 1963
  • Began teaching photography in 1969 at Cooper Union in New York
  • Became associate professor at Hunter College in 1975
  • Became professor of art at Hunter College in 1978
  • Has received received honorary degrees from Rhode Island School of Design, the Maryland Institute of Art, Wesleyan University, The New School for Social Research, The Parsons School of Design and the Art Institute of Boston
  • Works by Roy DeCarava have appeared in leading magazines such as Time, Newsweek, Life and Look
  • Worked as a contract photographer for Sports Illustrated from 1968 to 1975
  • He has published several collections of his photographs including the most recent The Sounds I Saw: Improvisation on a Jazz Theme in 2001, images of Harlem nightlife from the 50s and 60s including photographs of celebrities such as Billie Holiday and John Coltrane

Below is a short video about his work with some of the Harlem photos - best viewed full screen.

The Sound I Saw is a photographic portrait of the world of jazz music. Presented as a stream of 196 images interspersed with DeCarava's own poetry, this volume is, in its form and overall effect, a printed equivalent of jazz, composed of overlapping passages of pain, sweetness, optimism and suffering.

photographs by roy decarava

Roy DeCarava has documented the people, both famous and anonymous, and the seemingly mundane yet intimate moments of his Harlem neighbours and neighbourhood. The result is at once a work for photography enthusiasts, an historic documentation for jazz lovers, and a profound message to African-Americans as well as Whites that artistic talent knows no boundaries of race.

Photographed 30 years ago and not published until 2003, The Sound I Saw is a saunter through a poignant period of New York musical history and life experience.

Vacant lots and sweaty musicians dot a cultural landscape that looks as if it's going to burst at the seams. The beautiful black-and-white images simultaneously capture hard and luscious life in the city. Lonely figures abound, on park benches, street corners, stages, and subways.

The music appears and strives to make intense connections with the surrounding world. A delirious trumpet player works so hard you can almost feel him move the camera. This beautiful coffee-table size book has one striking picture after another, each capturing heartfelt experiences of life in the great city. From jam sessions to candy stores, the streets of New York appear choreographed to reveal the depths of the human spirit.

The final word goes to his wife, Sherry Turner DeCarava, who said: "Roy photographed for himself, and ultimately produced a body of work that enshrined the social contradictions of the 50s, the explosion of improvisational jazz music in the 60s, the struggle for social equity, the bold faced stridency of the 70s and 80s, only to turn to even more contemplative and serene realities during the later years of his life. Powerful and serene, his approach to the medium heralded a new, artistically and emotionally driven context for creative photography. His contribution to American photography and culture is manifold."

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