Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Roy DeCarava. Photographing Blackness.

"There were no black images of dignity, no images of beautiful black people. There was this big hole. I tried to fill it."
Roy DeCarava

Self Portrait, Reflection (1949)

Woman on Train (1961)

Bill & Son (1962)

“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 (1982)
"Unlike many photographers of his day, Mr. DeCarava did not intend that his photos be viewed as visual documentation but rather as artistic expressions in their own right so that his images were, in his words, "serious," "artistic," and universally "human." Whether photographing the Scottish countryside or the heart of New York City, the deep connection he felt to the lives of people everywhere is evident in the integrity of his images. Among the many subjects his camera focused upon, he expressed an early desire to address the lack of artistic attention given to the lives of Black Americans, illuminating the aesthetic and human qualities of each individual life through the lens of his perceptions." (via)

Woman Resting, Subway Entrance, New York (1952)

Haynes, Jones, and Benjamin (1956)

"DeCarava took photographs of white people tenderly but seldom. Black life was his greater love and steadier commitment. With his camera he tried to think through the peculiar challenge of shooting black subjects at a time when black appearance, in both senses (the way black people looked and the very presence of black people), was under question." (via)

Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) was one of two black students at a high school for textile studies and one of a few at the Cooper Union of Art (with a scholarship to study art and architecture). Discouraged by the hostility of many white students there, he left and enrolled at Harlem Community Art Center after two years.
DeCarava trained to be a painter but soon turned to photography after using a camera to gather images for his printmaking. As a black painter, he would have faced limitations: "A black painter, to be an artist had to join the white world or not function - had to accept the values of white culture." He became "the founder of a school of African-American photography that broke with the social documentary traditions of his time."
DeCarava was an outspoken crusader for civil rights, a member of the Committee to End Discrimination Against Black Photographers (he once supported protest against Life magazine for having only one - Gordon Parks - black photographer on its staff). DeCarava felt that "his pictures would speak louder as a record of black life if they abandoned the overtly humanist aims". Roy DeCarava was an artist who treated photography as a fine art and turned Harlem into his canvas (via).

from the book "The Sweet Flypaper of Life"

“I want to photograph Harlem through the Negro people. Morning, noon, night, at work, going to work… talking, kidding… in the home, in the playground, in the schools… I do not want a documentary or sociological statement, I want a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.”
Roy DeCarava (via, via)

Marchers talking (1963)

Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, DC (1963)

On the photograph "Mississippi Freedom Marcher, 1963" (see above)
"In “Mississippi Freedom Marcher,” for example, even the whites of the shirts have been pulled down, into a range of soft, dreamy grays, so that the tonalities of the photograph agree with the young woman’s strong, quiet expression. This exploration of the possibilities of dark gray would be interesting in any photographer, but DeCarava did it time and again specifically as a photographer of black skin. Instead of trying to brighten blackness, he went against expectation and darkened it further. What is dark is neither blank nor empty. It is in fact full of wise light which, with patient seeing, can open out into glories." (via)

Five Men (1964)

On the photograph "Five Men, 1964" (see above)
“This moment occurred during a memorial service for the children killed in a church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1964. The photograph shows men coming out of the service at a church in Harlem.” The “men were coming out of the church with faces so serious and so intense that I responded, and the image was made.”
Roy DeCarava, 1990

Two Men Talking, Washington, DC (1963)

Picket, Downstate Demonstration (1963)

- - - - - - - - - -
photographs via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via


  1. Brilliant, just brilliant.

  2. His photographs are brilliant, indeed. Many, many thanks, Wim, Derek, and Karen!

  3. Roy DeCarava was a professor of mine at Hunter College; we would spend a bit of time discussing jazz as a medium, and when i felt doubtful of my work he encouraged me. i am really grateful for my experience with him. Thank you for this dedication.

    1. I feel like having DeCarava as an instructor must have been an amazing experience. His capture of life in Harlem leaves me with a sense of awe and a subtle envy. He photographed what he felt was beautiful in a way only he could. Even for as interested as I am in life at that time, he had a perspective I could never see from. For that, I appreciate his work immensely. That's why he is one of my top favorite photographers, if not the top.

    2. The only photography course I ever took was his at Hunter College. He was very cool, an observer who shared.