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Prof. Boerner's Explorations

Thoughts and Essays that explore the world of Technology, Computers, Photography, History and Family.


Archive for November 29th, 2009
by Gerald Boerner


“I do not want a documentary or sociological statement…”
— Roy DeCarava

“One of the things that got to me, was that I felt that black people were not being portrayed in a serious and in an artistic way.”
— Roy DeCarava

“A black painter, to be an artist, had to join the white world or not function — had to accept the values of white culture.”
— Roy DeCarava

“It starts before you snap the shutter… It starts with your sense of what’s important.”
— Roy DeCarava

“As unpretentious and sensitive as the black artist whose story it so eloquently tells… An important record of a quietly influential life in art.” 
— Suzanne Muchnic, Los Angeles Times

“[He] came to be regarded as the founder of a school of African-American photography that broke with the social documentary traditions of his time.”
— Randy Kennedy, The New York Times

“[My goal] a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.”
— Roy DeCarava

“DeCarava reads the city’s small secrets as it goes about its business unawares, and comes in so close that everything outside his concentration falls away.”
— Vicki Goldberg, writing in The New York Times

“Going outside and meeting the challenge of taking what is and making it yours, that’s what photography does for me,” he said. “It’s not the subject that interests me as much as my perception of the subject.”
— Roy DeCarava

“He was looking at everyday life in Harlem from the inside, not as a sociological or political vehicle. No photographer black or white before him had really shown ordinary domestic life so perceptively and tenderly, so persuasively.”
— Roy DeCarava

“Roy DeCarava, the child of a single mother in Harlem who turned that neighborhood into his canvas, becoming one of the most important photographers of his generation by chronicling the lives of its ordinary people and its jazz giants…”
— Randy Kennedy, The New York Times


Roy DeCarava (1919 – 2009)

Roy DeCarava portrait Roy Rudolph DeCarava was an American photographer. DeCarava and poet Langston Hughes collaborated on a notable 1955 book on life in Harlem, The Sweet Flypaper of Life. The subject of at least 15 solo exhibitions, DeCarava was known as the first African American photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship and was awarded a National Medal of Arts in 2006.

Since the late 1940s Roy DeCarava has created visually acute, thought-provoking images from unexpected places. His creative intent was founded on his belief in a human-centered world and was shaped through formal language expressed initially in drawing and painting. He developed a perception of photographic tonality and time that carried a richness and a restraint into the images, enabling a quiet emotional gestalt to emerge. Many of his depictions of people in exterior and interior places appear as memories of those whom he observed growing up in different neighborhoods around and contiguous to Harlem, and other metropolitan areas of the city. Yet, even when images contain biographical references of these times, they reach beyond an individual dimension.


DeCarava_bearden Roy DeCarava was born in Harlem as the only child of Elfreda Ferguson, an immigrant, who separated from DeCarava’s father shortly after his birth. DeCarava lived in Harlem through many decades of important changes and development to the area. In DeCarava’s childhood, the Harlem Renaissance gave prominence to many black artists, musicians and writers. He was close to poet Langston Hughes, and would later publish a book with him titled, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, which chronicled the lives of Harlem residents.

To earn money, DeCarava began working at an early age. He continued to hold odd jobs throughout most of his career as a photographer. DeCarava graduated from Chelsea Vocational High School. Through diligence and hard work, he secured admission to The Cooper Union, but left after two years to attend classes at the Harlem Art Center. Deciding early on that he wanted to be an artist, he began working as a painter and commercial illustrator, and many of his early photographs were meant only as reference for serigraph prints. He was drawn to photography by “the directness of the medium,” and soon found himself communicating the themes and ideas of his paintings photographically. In 1955, DeCarava opened A Photographer’s Gallery, an important New York City gallery pioneering an effort to win recognition for photography as a fine art; the gallery remained open for over two years.

DeCarava_pepsi Many still regarded photography as a documentary medium, and as a result a great visual lexicon of photojournalism was created by so-called street photographers like Garry Winogrand and Helen Levitt. DeCarava, however, never considered himself of this tradition. Rather his work hearkens to the intense visual imagery and tones that influenced him as an early painter and graphic artist. He cherished the people, places, and events in his pictures and early on developed the means to express his affection. He shoots using only ambient light, then prints so as to coax light expressively out of very dark images or, more rarely, to delineate darker detail in very light ones. The grays in his black-and-white pictures are velvety and warm–qualities he occasionally enhances by purposely shooting out of focus or exposing long enough to show movement.

DeCarava_subway The strong lines, extraordinarily rich tonality, and exploration of light in his work charge his photographs with earthy mystery, like a prime Rembrandt painting (Rembrandt was an early influence) or a late Michelangelo sculpture in which, because of the artist’s rendering of light and mass, life seems to be springing off the canvas.

DeCarava worked for a time at Sports Illustrated magazine, but found it difficult to adjust his style and schedule to the constraints of commercial work. He did a series on the set of Requiem for a Heavyweight in 1962, which the director liked so much he bought nearly 200 prints. Despite his successes DeCarava felt very strongly about maintaining the artistic integrity of his images, and eventually gave up magazine and freelance work in order to take on a job teaching at Hunter College, where he was a distinguished member of the faculty. In 2006, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

DeCarava_coltraneHis Photographic Style

Roy DeCarava has been making photographs for nearly half a century, at no prompting but his own. He always has lived in New York City and almost always has photographed there, creating from his immediate world the world of his art. He found his poetic voice almost as soon as he picked up a camera, in the late 1940s, and has never diverged from it.

Soon thereafter, DeCarava started to experiment with a darker tonal range. His studies of the New York jazz world, begun a few years later, further developed his penchant for dark printing. While the deep tones in his pictures sometimes push the edge of legibility, both true blacks and true whites are rare.

DeCarava_smilingAt the heart of DeCarava’s photography is an aesthetic of patient contemplation. It is common that we say to ourselves (or to others) that our lives would be richer if we could only slow down, if we could take time to savor and consider, if we would attend to our own backyards. DeCarava’s work achieves this reflective state of grace, in the way he looks at the world and in the way his pictures invite us to look at them. He loves the luxurious subtlety of photography’s infinitely divisible scale of grays, and it pleases him when viewers feel obliged to pause and peer closely into the dense but articulate shadows of his pictures. Having paused, the viewer has entered DeCarava’s world.

The photographs are still and resolute. Often the people in them are themselves still or nearly so, their inwardness a reflection of DeCarava’s contemplative frame of mind. Even a musician in a fury of improvisation and a worker straining with his load are full of poise in DeCarava’s pictures, their powerful energies compressed in timeless potential. Often, too, the frame is compressed, as if to exclude the untended bustle of the world beyond.

Decarava_graduationThrough its lyric concision DeCarava’s work addresses the viewer with uncommon intimacy; its formal grace is a vehicle of deep feeling. No one has ever made photographs more openly tender, and perhaps this is no surprise for an artist whose style is so gentle. But in the pictures there is pain and anger, too.

The emotional intimacy of DeCarava’s photography is still more remarkable because it is full of social meaning: The expression of self is nearly always an expression of relation to others. DeCarava is indeed a poet of light, but what is most distinctive and compelling in his art is the seamless, reciprocal identity of the personal and the social, as if each of these opposing aspects of the self had deepened the other.

DeCarava_Dancers uptown club dance In a series of taped interviews with Sherry Turner DeCarava (published in Roy DeCarava Photographs), Roy Decarava had much to say about his 1956 piece Dancers, uptown ‘club dance,’ New York:

“This photograph was taken at a dance of a social club at the 110th St. Manor at Fifth Avenue. It is about the intermission where they had entertainment and the entertainment was two dancers who danced to jazz music. That’s what this image is all about; it’s about these two dancers who represent a terrible torment for me in that I feel a great ambiguity about the image because of them. It’s because they are in some ways distorted characters. What they actually are is two black male dancers who dance in the manner of an older generation of black vaudeville performers. The problem comes because their figures remind me so much of the real life experience of blacks in their need to but themselves in an awkward position before the man, for the man; to demean themselves in order to survive, to get along. In a way, these figures seem to epitomize that reality. And yet there is something in the figures not about that; something in the figures that is very creative, that is very real and very black in the finest sense of the word. So there is this duality this ambiguity in the photograph that I find very hard to live with. I always have to make a decision in a case like this – is it good or is it bad? I have to say that even though it jars some of my sensibilities and reminds me of things that I would rather not be reminded of, it is still a good picture. In fact, it is good just because of those things and in spite of those things. The picture works.”


Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Roy DeCarava that can be found at…

Also see…

Masters of Photography: Roy DeCarava

by Gerald Boerner


“I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”
— Harriet Tubman

“I grew up like a neglected weed — ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.”
— Harriet Tubman

“Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you.”
— Frederick Douglass

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