Roy DeCarava’s Powerful Portraits of 20th-Century Harlem

“In times of great complexity and peril, artists are sensitive to the temperature of the world around them,” says Sherry Turner DeCarava, art historian and widow of Roy DeCarava, the pioneering photographer famous for raising the perception of photography as an art form. “His work testifies to the breadth of his artistic vision and his commitment to understanding the modern world through a complex political, economic and aesthetic reality.”

Born in Harlem in 1919, DeCarava has spent more than six decades creating a rich body of work explaining and immortalizing the world around him – the daily life of his beloved New York community as well as the famous (and infamous ) jazz musicians of the time, and put black lives at the forefront of his images. Synthesizing the immediacy and opportunism of documentary and street photography with the painter’s artistic sensibility, his black and white gelatin silver photographs profoundly contributed to transforming the status of the photographic image. Today, a new exhibition at the London gallery of David Zwirner brings together selected works by the famous photographer.

It’s no surprise that he trained as a draftsman and painter before turning to photography. “DeCarava understood the medium of gelatin silver photography much like a painter understands his palette or a musician his instrument,” Sherry Turner DeCarava told Dazed. Initially using the camera only to collect visual references for his paintings, by the mid-1940s he had completely abandoned the canvas for his 35mm camera, but his painterly sense of composition and deep chiaroscuro did not. would never leave. “It has created an essential opening in the field of art for serious aesthetic inquiry that is both rooted in the specificity of silver gelatin and, at the same time, challenges us to expand our understanding of this one.”

Notably, in 1955 he collaborated with the famous American writer Langston Hughes on the extraordinary hybrid of poetry and photography, The soft fly paper of life (since republished by David Zwirner Books). Legend has it the pair spoke on a street corner in upper Manhattan and their conversation led to Hughes introducing DeCarava to his publishers, Simon & Schuster, who fell in love with the poignant portraits of his Harlem neighborhood. .

“The search for an aesthetic way of life is a central tenet of humanity. Artists like DeCarava help pave the way for these discoveries through their diligence, discipline and faith in the creative spirit to transform people’s lives,” continues Sherry Turner DeCarava. “It’s about a worldview that transcends the document and essentially asks an audience to engage the rigor of looking in depth.”

Alongside other important photographers of his time, DeCarava’s images remain exceptional for their rare compassion and intimacy. His portraits are full of life. As a statement from the gallery puts it, “The search for beauty in this modern enigma is the hallmark of his work, and achieving a vibrant, meditative voice, he remains a central beacon for contemporary artists.”

Roy DeCarava: Selected Works opens at David Zwirner, London on January 14, 2022

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