Roy DeCarava, arguably one of the most important photographers of his generation who chronicled Black life, including many of the icons of the Harlem Renaissance, has died. He was 89.
“Mr. DeCarava trained to be a painter, but while using a camera to gather images for his printmaking work, he began to gravitate toward photography, in part because of its immediacy but also because of the limitations he saw all around him for a Black artist in a segregated nation,” The New York Times reports.
He once said that “a Black painter, to be an artist, had to join the White world or not function — had to accept the values of White culture,” according to the Times.
In a career that spanned nearly seven decades, DeCarava “fiercely guarded how his work was exhibited and whose visibility in the art world remained low for decades,” the Times writes. 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. While an outspoken crusader for civil rights, he felt that his pictures would speak louder as a record of Black life in America if they abandoned the overtly humanist aims of mentors like Edward Steichen.”
In his application for a Guggenheim fellowship, DeCarava wrote, “I do not want a documentary or sociological statement.” He was awarded the honor in 1952, becoming the first Black photographer to do so. His goal, he explained, was instead “a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret,” according to the Times.
The Times writes: “His books, like ‘The Sweet Flypaper of Life,’ a best-selling 1955 collaboration with Langston Hughes, and his most famous photographs were hugely influential, paving the way for younger photographers like Beuford Smith and Carrie Mae Weems. Among the memorable images were those of a girl in a pristine graduation dress heading down a desolate, shadowed street; a man ascending wearily from the subway; and a stage portrait of John Coltrane playing with closed-eyed fury.”
“One of the things that got to me,” Mr. DeCarava said in an interview with the newspaper in 1982, “was that I felt that Black people were not being portrayed in a serious and in an artistic way.”