“He was looking for beauty”: Roy DeCarava’s widow remembers a master photographer | Photography
OSince then, when asked why his prints were so dark, Roy DeCarava replied, “I think photography is not black and white; it is gray. At London’s David Zwirner Gallery, the first UK exhibition of DeCarava’s work in over 30 years is a quietly fascinating testament to the expressive tones of this neutral, in-between colour.
“Roy is an artist known for the darkness of his prints,” says his widow, Sherry Turner DeCarava, an art historian who skillfully curated the exhibition to showcase the sustained background music of Roy’s work. her late husband. “But it’s a deep understanding of the nature of light that gives quality to his photos.”
At Zwirner, an example is his mesmerizing portrait of jazz musicians John Coltrane and Elvin Jones, in which the eye is first drawn to the curve of light that meanders along the polished surface of a saxophone played by the great saxophonist . Up close and in profile, Coltrane’s face emerges from the surrounding darkness, a study in quiet concentration. In the background, the menacing figure of drummer Jones is rendered as an indistinct, yet distinctive, blurry figure. In its mood and mystery, it’s a world away from traditional portraiture and, like every image in the show, it demands a degree of concentration from the viewer, with the darkness slowly revealing shades and textures that testify to the process. singular creative of DeCarava.
“Roy was looking for beauty, that’s really what he was looking for,” says Sherry, who flew in from New York for the opening of the exhibition. “He was attentive to the transcendent and the sublime in our daily lives, but he also understood that a photograph only comes together as a complete statement in the water bath of the darkroom. He was an intuitive master of this complex process.
A scholarly selection of his portraits of jazz musicians punctuates an exhibition which poses him above all as a poet of the sublime everyday life. His predominant subject is the black American urban experience in all its intimacy and banality, which he renders in gestures and looks, and in textures and painterly forms. In doing so, he gave expression to a world almost invisible to the white mainstream, while simultaneously subverting the received ways in which this experience was traditionally captured by photojournalists and documentarians.
In 1952, when DeCarava applied for a Guggenheim grant for a project in which he would record daily life in his native Harlem, he made it clear that he did not want it to be “a sociological documentary or statement”, but rather ” creative expression”. of community life. His goal, he writes, was to “photograph Harlem through the black people,” which is quite different from photographing the black people of Harlem. The difference in intent says a lot about his creative sensibility.
“It was very clear from the start that what he was doing was art,” explains Sherry, “it was defined by aesthetics, not just geography or sociology, which people too quickly attributed to his work in the past.”
Often, as their not very descriptive titles suggest, DeCarava captured everyday moments of quiet interaction or even quieter solitude: Man Sitting in Sun; Two men talking, lamp post; Resting Woman, Subway Entrance. Its interiors, which perfectly fuse the formal and the deeply atmospheric, are often evoked by a single, almost banal word: Hallway, Skylight, Coathanger. He is an artist who has looked deeply and patiently at the ordinary world around him, attentive to its everyday beauty, and asks us to do the same with his work.
Born into poverty in Harlem in 1919, Roy DeCarava was raised by a single mother, a Jamaican immigrant, who encouraged him from childhood to follow his creative instincts. He studied art history in high school and later painting at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York, where after a few years the casual racist attitudes of his contemporaries caused him to leave and pursue his studies at the Harlem Community Art Center. Later, when he was drafted into the US Army and stationed in Louisiana in the segregated South, he suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the brutal racism he experienced there.
By the early 1940s, having temporarily adopted photography as a reference for his paintings, he found himself increasingly intrigued by its aesthetic possibilities. His apprenticeship in painting and printmaking was, Sherry says, crucial to his outlook.
“At the time, photography was not accepted as an art by the gatekeepers of major art institutions,” she says, “but for him it was a very malleable medium and he was constantly rethinking his approach. It would be hard to think of another photographer who has thought so deeply, but also so intuitively, about printing. With the gelatin silver process, you never know what you have until the image appears. You don’t make it, the light makes it, and in the end it all comes down to a matter of seconds. Roy was a master of timing. For him, it was an emotional and psychological process as well as a technical one.
In 1954, 34-year-old DeCarava met the writer Langston Hughes, who was so impressed by his photographs of Harlem that he urged his publisher, Simon & Schuster, to publish a book, the text of which he provided. The Sweet Flypaper of Life is now considered a classic, though Hughes’ lyrical prose, told through the eyes of Sister Mary Bradley, may not have aged as well as the pictures.
“They had a close friendship for a time,” Sherry says, “but Langston was a bit older and more conservative and Roy found it difficult to come to terms with some of his positions because the 1960s brought a new, more radical political message. They parted ways, but the book they created was very important, politically and artistically. He validated the everyday humanity of an entire culture.
Both in his quiet studies of people and places and in his wonderfully atmospheric jazz portraits, which have been collected in a book aptly titled The Sound I’ve Seen, DeCarava’s gaze is intimate without ever being intrusive. “He understood the particular issues of the medium,” as Sherry puts it, “and never disrespected his gift for intimacy.”
Here and there in his work, certain portraits break the atmosphere of quiet contemplation. Perhaps most vibrant is her portrayal of a young and curious Billie Holiday, alert and completely engaged with her camera. Another is his towering study of jazz’s great iconoclast, Ornette Coleman, who is caught up in thought, almost imperious. “Roy respected Ornette,” Sherry says, when I ask if the two knew each other. “You can tell because he makes his images of him look like they were carved out of granite. I think he respected Ornette’s vision for the future because he was there with him in that regard. At the time, critics were hesitant to consider what they each did in their own way, but, over time, the true value of what they accomplished continues to rise. contemporary artists.