PDN Photo of the Day

The Heydays of Harlem

In the 1950’s, photography was hardly considered a job, let alone art. If you wanted to be taken seriously as a photographer, you snapped mountains and models — definitely not your neighbors. It also, of course, helped to be white. But Roy DeCarava (1919–2009), turned all of that on its head.

Over the course of six decades, DeCarava produced a singular collection of black-and-white photographs that combines formal acuity with an intimate and deeply human treatment of his subjects. (The deeply personal style of his portraits led publisher and photographer Alan Thomas to call DeCarava’s work “gentle humanism”). His pioneering work privileged the aesthetic qualities of the medium, providing a counterpoint to the prevailing view of photography as mere chronicle or document and helping it to gain acceptance as an art form in its own right.

Having trained as a painter and draftsman, DeCarava began working with the camera in the mid-1940s, seeking an inclusive artistic statement for the culturally diverse uptown Manhattan neighborhood of his Harlem youth. Working without assistants and rejecting standard techniques of photographic manipulation, DeCarava honed his printing technique to produce rich tonal gradations, enabling him to explore a full spectrum of light and dark gray values more akin to a painterly mode of expression. Relying on ambient light and a point of view that neither monumentalizes nor sentimentalizes his subjects, he was able to produce a highly original oeuvre that carries significant visual and emotional meaning.

In 1952, DeCarava applied for the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. He was the first black photographer to receive the grant, and he used it to photograph Harlem. The photos from this period eventually became the contents of a book. The Sweet Flypaper Of Life was made in collaboration with Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes. It showed Harlem as a mix of quiet ordinary moments, everyday struggles and tiny triumphs. Edward Steichen also included DeCarava in a number of group exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, including The Family of Man (1955), which traveled internationally through 1965, resulting in more recognition of his work overseas.

David Zwirner presents concurrent exhibitions of photographs by Roy DeCarava at two of its New York gallery locations: 533 West 19th Street and 34 East 69th Street. Curated by art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava, this will be the gallery’s first presentation since announcing exclusive representation of the Estate of Roy DeCarava in 2018, and the first opportunity to view a major grouping of the artist’s work in New York since his 1996 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art.

On view at the gallery uptown will be a selection of photographs from the sound i saw, DeCarava’s unwavering exploration of the relationship between the visual and the aural. Created between the mid-1940s and 1960 and first assembled as an artist book, it has never before been exhibited in its original form. This work delivers musicians, those known and unknown, including Ornette Coleman (this photograh, according to David Zwirner is the one that helped him decide to represent the collection as a whole originally), John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and others in their milieu, into a sound and a sense rarely seen in visual arts. These figures are glimpsed both mid-set and off-stage in moments of repose, emphasizing their status not as musical icons, but as people deeply engaged in the everyday process of living. DeCarava photograhs as if he sees the music…

Presented in Chelsea, Light Break features a dynamic survey and range of images that underscores DeCarava’s subtle mastery of tonal and spatial elements across a wide array of subject matter. Spanning the years 1948 to 2006, the photographs in the exhibition—including a number of images that have never been seen before—provide an introduction to the artist’s singular vision, particularly his ability to see with great sensitivity into people and to find a complexity of relationships that coincide with our lives.

Sherry Turner DeCarava of course, is no ordinary curator in this case. She is his wife and long time collaborator, inextricably connected to the work and its history. She says: “Light Break, the new exhibition of Roy DeCarava photographs, brings together more than one hundred prints in celebration of the centennial of his birth and of the prodigious achievement of his life’s work. The pictures chosen from his archive, which spans a substantive sixty-two years in photography, also represent a decade of my looking at and reflecting on the increasingly spiritual arc of his oeuvre.

Unseen but viscerally present in everything he produced was the meticulous nature of his darkroom process and his concern for the artistry of each individual image. This perhaps accounts for the seemingly inherent dialogue in which the photographs engage, in relationship to and in juxtaposition with one another. It’s as though he produced not just singular artistic comments but a family of images that stand together as a whole statement of enduring consequence.

In DeCarava’s work, light carries aesthetic qualities while its graphic energies equally face the rendering of trenchant social truths. The creative interplay he fostered between illumination and obscurity allows the viewer’s consciousness to emerge and align. The resulting effect is not unlike the meditative sounding that awakens the senses and transfers imminent information—calls to alert, to action, to contemplation.
These pictures reflect Roy’s determination to manifest each image as he understood it was meant to be in that instant. His fascination with the medium opened an exploration of profundity in landscapes both urban and natural, external and interior. The exhibition generates a welcome moment, inviting audiences into the inner sanctum of the artist’s creative labor to find meaning in DeCarava’s steadfast transmutation of his world into places of subtle beauty.”

The exhibitions will be accompanied by a new catalogue entitled Light Break, with an essay by Sherry Turner DeCarava and preface by Zoé Whitley, as well as an expanded edition of DeCarava’s artist book the sound i saw, with new essays by Turner DeCarava and Radiclani Clytus, both co-published by First Print Press and David Zwirner Books.

— Samantha Reinders

“Light Break”
David Zwirner
533 West 19th Street, New York
Through October 26, 2019

“the sound i saw”
David Zwirner
34 East 69th Street, New York
Through October 26, 2019

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