Roy DeCarava


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Photographer. Drawing subjects from his African-American community in Harlem, he extracted a deeply felt and poetic vision. His work typically displays rich tonalities emphasizing velvety blacks and grays, luminous moments shimmering in mysterious shadows, and empathetic responses to individuals, always treated with seriousness and dignity. Although he believed that the black artist has a responsibility to speak for his people, DeCarava rarely emphasized oppression. Rather, he focused on his subjects' innate worth as human beings whose complex psychology responds to their social position in white-dominated society. He also photographed urban life more generally, as well as landscapes. A lifelong New Yorker, Roy Rudolph DeCarava studied painting at Cooper Union from 1938 to 1940. During the following two years, he continued his training at the Harlem Community Art Center, where Augusta Savage provided encouragement. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army. He then turned his attention to printmaking, using photography as an aid to this endeavour until 1947, when it became his primary meduim. Supported by Edward Steichen, in 1952 he became the first black photographer to win a Guggenheim fellowship. For two years in the mid-1950s, he served as the founding director of A Photographer's Gallery, one of few galleries then showing fine art photography. Around the same time he came to wider public attention upon publication of Sweet Flypaper of Youth (1955), with text by Langston Hughes. In 1956 he embarked on a long-term series of jazz portraits. “Coltrane No. 24” (1963) pictures the musician's body emerging from deep shadow to fill the picture's surface. Light falls primarily on his face, hands, and saxophone, where it glints with a slight blur to suggest the soulful resonance of his music. In the 1960s DeCarava recorded the period's momentous agitation for civil rights with a more objective and less moody attitude than was previously common in his work. This less inward and symbolic approach continued in some later photographs, such as “Asphalt Workers” (1975), a masterfully composed frieze of black laborers. A formally sophisticated, objective record of street activity, it also confirms the implicit value of the workers' physical effort and their moral integrity. DeCarava taught at New York's Hunter College since 1975. At the time of his death in Manhattan, he resided in the Bedford–Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

Subjects: Art.

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