Roy DeCarava’s sublime photographs of life in Harlem
“Did you know that babies can fly? Sherry Turner DeCarava said with a smile.
The art historian and widow of Roy DeCarava – who died in 2009, aged 89 – refers to a meditative image, one of 66 currently on display at the London gallery of David Zwirner (until February 19). This is the first exhibition dedicated to the artist in London for more than three decades.
On the picture, Bill and son (1962), a man’s hands grip the body of a newborn baby, dressed in a fluffy romper. The gesture seems to be both a warm proclamation of life and the start of a battle between parent and child. Like many of DeCarava’s works, it is both universal and immensely personal – presenting, as the artist once said, “a moment so deeply it becomes an eternity”.
As Turner DeCarava suggests, what you see isn’t always what’s in the frame – in this case the image is tightly cropped so that neither the man nor the baby (a friend of DeCarava and his son) are not identifiable. And the baby may not be where you think: the vitality that emanates from DeCarava’s work is attention.
“When we think of a portrait, we think of a picture of a face and we accept the face as representing the person. But he saw other qualities in the portrait,” says Turner DeCarava. “And if the baby is held like that, it’s because it’s squirming, even though we don’t see it – and that movement is the future. We see the mosaic of man’s own childhood in this future life – at the end or at the beginning, we all have the potential to come together.
Turner DeCarava first met the late artist in the 1960s while working at the Brooklyn Museum, where she invited DeCarava to give an artist talk. They married in 1970 and Turner DeCarava has worked tirelessly to preserve and contextualize DeCarava’s work, highlighting his many contributions to the contemporary art form over the past 60 years; from his breakthroughs in silver gelatin printing techniques to his insistence on the value of photography as an art form.
“It was a meeting [made] in heaven,” says Turner DeCarava. “He tended to turn people down, he didn’t like to talk about his work, but he talked to me. No one was writing about their work, and it was a headache for me because it was so deserving. So I kind of filled in that space that should have been filled in with other people’s work, and gradually I was. Turner DeCarava now takes care of the artist’s archives and estate in New York.
DeCarava’s own journey began during the Harlem Renaissance. Born in the neighborhood in 1919, at the age of five, he decided to become an artist. He then studied art at Cooper Union and the Harlem Art Center, then worked as a commercial artist. He began taking photographs as references for his paintings, but by the late 1940s he devoted himself to photography.
It was not the easy road to take – in the 1950s and well after, photography was still a burgeoning art form with little recognition or commercial or institutional interest and DeCarava found himself engaged in “a decades-long struggle to insist that his work be treated as art was his critical and central stance on the importance of photography,” says Turner DeCarava. institutional solo exhibition took place almost 20 years after he began taking pictures, at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1969.
DeCarava believed in the potential of photography, but one of the artist’s great accomplishments is that he continually transcended the medium. It is not the photography that impresses the viewer, but the careful choreography of gray tones and shapes – abstract but not erased – that perform an evocative dance with the subconscious.
“Conservators often want to talk about photography as a style, but he’s really making another point,” says Turner DeCarava. “Each image is a world unto itself, he didn’t do something that was repeatable as a style or an approach, or Black the art – it was much more complex than the labels allowed him, and in fact he says [in the short documentary film Conversations with Roy DeCarava, 1983] that it accepts labels, but needs all of them, and more.
Existing in the “and more,” DeCarava moved freely between subjects. He photographed people, often in motion – the famous jazz musicians who often command the most attention from his work, workers, parents, couples, couples; he photographed places, especially the texture and tapestry of the urban environment, moving between the shimmering sun and the seductive symmetry of its still architecture. Although grounded in reality, DeCarava produced images that were difficult to locate, and which always left physical space, gaps – “he left room for the audience, room for people to come in,” says Turner. FromCarava.
In a remarkable book, Corridor (1953), the viewer is plunged directly into the inky obsidian of a long sinister hallway. “He establishes a line somewhere in that space that you can enter through. The visual line is an artistic effect, but it is also an emotional effect,” explains Turner DeCarava.
The image is also autobiographical. “He had grown up in those poor halls of New York, and they were terrifying to him as a kid,” says Turner DeCarava. “Here he is, late at night, passing through the hall again, but seeing it as a whole otherwise; the light was so diffused, and he found himself in a strange position of finding something really ugly and scary , but suddenly beautiful too – this contradiction provoked him into a state of celebration.
A 1957 photograph poses another key question that orbits DeCarava’s work. Striking and raw, The man’s back transforms a man’s body into a canvas on which we encounter “a lived life”.
“It’s really an innovation in American art, and I would say in world art,” says Turner DeCarava. “He was able to combine all of these abilities in a realistic way that really communicates the value and importance of a human being.”
DeCarava’s work is often approached primarily through his position as a black man in the United States and as a chronicler of everyday black life in America in the second half of the 20th century. DeCarava himself was acutely aware of how such interpretations could limit work and was adamantly opposed to social documentary photography. He felt that a different strategy was needed to tackle inequality in his country. Her work seeks moments of euphoria and epiphany in the everyday, the culmination of states beyond our control that reflect our fundamental humanity.
“Part of this issue revolves around what do you do with injustice, with anger – how do you deal with that as a personal experience, in life and as an artist? ” said Turner DeCarava. “Roy was quite distinct from other people I met; he was, I would say, serene. He had this sense of homeostasis, this level-quality in his perception of the environment and the things that happen in life. He had righteous anger but no bitterness, which was oriented toward justice. These two qualities existed in relation to each other, and they informed this balance he achieved for himself personally and in the work.
DeCarava’s personal experiences may have shaped his empathetic eye early on, but he also looked to artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Caravaggio, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Käthe Kollwitz for their treatment of human figure and their human expressions. state. Like those artists before him, he remains one of the great humanists of our time.
“He celebrated the individual and that was part of the importance of his work,” says Turner DeCarava. “He had this sense of humanity, this feeling for people.”
- Roy DeCarava: Selected Worksuntil February 19, David Zwirner, London