Roy DeCarava, American photographer, Died at 89

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Dead, Roy DeCarava on October 27, 2009 at the age of 89, he was an American photographer whose images of African Americans chronicle subjects such as daily life in Harlem, the civil rights movement, and jazz musicians.

DeCarava won a scholarship to study at the Cooper Union School of Art (1938–40), but he left after two years to attend the more congenial Harlem Community Art Center (1940–42)—where he had access to such figures as the artists Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence and the poet Langston Hughes—and the George Washington Carver Art School (1944–45), where he studied with the Social Realist Charles White.

He initially took up photography to record images he would use in his painting, but he came to prefer the camera to the brush. In the late 1940s he began a series of scenes of his native Harlem, aiming for “a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.”

Edward Steichen, then curator of photography for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, attended DeCarava’s first solo show in 1950 and bought several prints for the museum’s collection.

In 1952 DeCarava was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, the first African American photographer to receive the grant. Many of the photos enabled by this award were compiled in the book The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955; reissued 1988), with text written by Hughes.

In 1958 DeCarava became a freelance photographer.

DeCarava encouraged other photographers and believed in the accessibility of the medium.

From 1955 – 1957, at his own expense, he established and supported A Photographer’s Gallery in his apartment in a brownstone block at 48 West 85th Street, New York, in which was shown work of the great names of American photography of the period.

DeCarava began using a camera around 1946 to document street images he wanted to paint.

He became so involved in chronicling Harlem’s rich street life that he soon abandoned painting and printmaking altogether.

The first show of his photographic work was held at the Forty-Fourth Street Gallery in 1950.

The gallery’s owner, a photographer himself, taught DeCarava much of what he knew about darkroom technique.

Soon his works were championed by no less than acclaimed photographer Edward Steichen, a pioneer in the form and curator of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art at the time.

Steichen suggested that DeCarava apply for a prestigious John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, and in 1952, he became the first African-American photographer ever to win one.

In his application, he wrote that he hoped “to show the strength, the wisdom, the dignity of the Negro people.

Not the famous and the well known, but the unknown and the unnamed, thus revealing the roots from which spring the greatness of all human beings,” according an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Mary Abbe.

DeCarava stopped documenting the jazz world after a certain point, feeling that an era had passed. “Something happened to the musicians,” he said in an interview with Robinson for American Visions.

“I think the way they are taught has a great deal of influence over how they play. They are no longer taught the way they once were, by experience.

They are taught intellectually. Some soulfulness has gone out of their music.” But it’s his images of life in New York City that document a truly vanished time.

The innate dichotomies of the city abound in them, often accidentally: in “Man Sitting on Cart,” from 1966, DeCarava captures a man resting for a moment on a wire-enclosed wheeled platform once used for delivering packages.

Photographed from behind, he appears confined by it, and a chauffeured limousine looms elsewhere in the frame.


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