Roy DeCarava

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through September 15

By Stephen Longmire

Not long ago I was wondering what it would take for a photograph to show the photographer’s love for the people portrayed. Roy DeCarava’s best pictures–such as Sherry, Susan, Laura, Wendy, a 1983 study of the artist’s wife and (presumably) their children–provide the answer. The faces looking up in a circle from this remarkable print share a gaze with the photographer so familiar and trusting that one feels his presence alongside theirs. There’s none of the imposition on the subjects of candid photography. The tones of the print range not from white to black but from middle to deepest gray–as if DeCarava had first “fogged” his paper (printed it blank), obliterating all traces of white. One peers into the seemingly three-dimensional print to make eye contact with the frank, friendly woman and three girls, who lie relaxed in a circle on the floor, perhaps on a bed. But it remains clear that this is a private scene we’re privileged to witness: their gazes do not fully meet our own. The subjects’ skin tones are as dark as the print’s, making them harder to discern through its haze. Not since Alfred Stieglitz’s platinum prints of Georgia O’Keeffe have photographic portraits so dark been so expressive, as if they were trying to protect as much as they revealed.

Street photographers–and DeCarava has been among New York’s most talented for half a century–are not known for exceptional printing. Theirs is an aesthetic of coincidence, of the uncanny in casually observed moments of urban life shining through an unobtrusive technique. But DeCarava’s prints–soon moving on to Los Angeles, one of eight destinations for the show, which originated at New York’s Museum of Modern Art–are remarkable for two breaches of the traditions of black-and-white printing. He does much of his best work in the deepest shades of gray, rendering the documentary print virtually an expressionist form. And often his pictures are not in sharp focus but blur slightly with the subject’s movement. Both inflections of the medium bend it toward the photographer’s purposes and emotional tone. His subject is often hard–given the touchiness of discussions of race–but his treatment of his subjects is humanely soft.

Before DeCarava depicted children of his own, a recurrent theme was lone men with small children–an unattached man’s display of tenderness, perhaps. His relation to his subjects often seems nurturing, sheltering. The splendid 1953 image Joe Holding Baby–the baby held upright as if to be shown the world glimpsed through the camera, and guarded from it–is a male Madonna-and-child image all the more striking for the Madonna being black: in this era, toughness seemed a requirement for depictions of American black men. Joe and the baby both gaze clearly out through the print’s enveloping shadows–their halo.

The darkness of Man With Two Shovels, a 1959 picture that’s very nearly black, cloaks the subject’s exhaustion with dignity while simultaneously revealing the silent solitude of New York’s then predominantly black labor force. The man’s tools are just discernible among the shadows–barely distinguishable from them, he may as well be a tool himself. An unusual abstract from 1961, hung nearby,Crushed Can, offers a sad and striking counterpoint.

Like his celebrated forebearer Walker Evans, DeCarava often photographed in the New York subway, though his trains are not bound to Hades like the older photographer’s but to work. The train takes Harlem’s day laborers, household help and outdoor workers, downtown for the day and back. The subway is a democratic space–in theory. DeCarava’s 1964 photograph Five Men explores this possibility by asking us to search for the individuals. Again we probe the shadows. Only two faces are visible, but other forms prove to be distinct individuals when studied long enough. The revealing darkness of this print challenges our perceptions.

The man and infant of Joe Holding Baby meet in a satirical street photograph also made in 1953 (and reminiscent of Helen Leavitt’s equivocal studies of East Harlem children playing ten years earlier). A boy perhaps nine or ten stands by a circus billboard featuring a clown split down the middle, half in blackface, half in white. The picture is aptly titled Half Man, like the lad who puzzles out the billboard’s diminishing lesson.

The colors of “black” skin are an abiding concern in DeCarava’s photographs, revealed through the insistent darkness of his prints and through their subjects: he photographed half a century of daily life in the black communities of New York, his lifelong home. DeCarava has frequently spoken out against the underrepresentation of black artists, including himself, in prominent cultural institutions; he once ran a gallery, and in the 60s he helped found the ongoing Kamoinge workshop for black photographers. Still, it seems insufficient to label this a show of “black photography.” The pictures record essentially private human concerns–love, work, and play–as they’re enacted in public in the communities in which DeCarava has lived.

At the show’s Chicago opening I asked DeCarava what the color black means to him. His first answer was political. “Black is a myth,” he reminded me, “and a horrible historical process.” Knowing the subjects are not separable, I told him I was also asking about the tonality of his prints. “You won’t find any blacks in my photographs,” he cautioned me, without changing the subject. This is true: in the faces and in the tones there are infinite shades of gray. Consider a 1960 picture of John Coltrane and Ben Webster embracing. There isn’t a sharp edge in this photo: all are softened, as if in accord with the photographer’s emotional register.

This is one of many fine images of prominent jazz musicians DeCarava prepared in the 60s for a book he couldn’t get published. “The Sound I Saw” would have been his second volume: DeCarava first achieved prominence in 1955 when Harlem Renaissance poet and humorist Langston Hughes linked a series of DeCarava photographs with his own fictional text to create the successful The Sweet Flypaper of Life. (Many of the photographs in this retrospective will be familiar to readers of the book, which is available in a 1985 reprint from Howard University Press.)

At the time there was much creative interest in the “photo-text”–as it was called by novelist and photographer Wright Morris, who authored two such volumes in the 40s–and DeCarava’s collaboration with Hughes remains among the best of this mixed genre. Popular picture magazines of the day such as Life and Look were popularizing photographically illustrated news, and several artists took up the challenge to fuse words and photographs in an interdependent whole in which the pictures would be more than illustrations and the texts more than captions. Given the suggestiveness of the terms “black” and “white” to artists of the Harlem Renaissance and to DeCarava in particular, it’s fascinating to see his photographs recast in another black-and-white medium: print.

If DeCarava uses black-and-white photography to foreground the ambiguity of shades of gray–shades obliterated by false social distinctions–what Hughes sets down in black and white is a humane introduction to Harlem. At one point he has his narrator and ambassador, Sister Mary Bradley, the grandmother and angel who watches over her family and neighborhood, editorialize: “I got some fine people in my family, just like we got some fine people in our race.” As if Dante had walked with Virgil through the real world, the book offers a representative sampling of humanity with their feet, like the good sister’s, “caught in the sweet flypaper of life–and…dogged if [they] want to get loose.”

When I asked DeCarava about the origins of The Sweet Flypaper of Life, he recalled that editorial decisions were very much in the hands of the older Hughes, who had proposed the project. DeCarava offered a set of some 500 prints and did not interfere as Hughes selected and arranged 141 of them. These the poet used as inspiration for his story of a day in the life of Harlem as seen through the eyes of the kindly Sister Mary. Like the photographer coming out from behind the camera, she leaves her lookout at the window to appear herself only on the closing page.

Asked whether he liked his photographs in the book format, DeCarava said he appreciated the transformation. A photo-text is apt to turn looking into reading, and in his published correspondence with Minor White, DeCarava had implied that collaboration compromised the integrity of his images. Reconsidering what Hughes had done with his pictures, however, DeCarava said he appreciated the impact of a fresh eye he respected: “I saw them in his way.” Hughes saw the family members and friends DeCarava had photographed as characters in a story: the loving grandmother who’d come to Harlem from the south and had seen the urban community falter and grow; her responsible daughter and that daughter’s wayward son, whom the grandmother takes in when his parents put him out because she admires the streak of life in the reckless boy. Joe (whom we’d seen with his baby) becomes Sister Mary’s son-in-law Jerry, whose indulgence of his children and of his thirst she watches indulgently. The weary subways we’ve ridden with DeCarava, Sister Mary rides to work. They are also her ticket to “this integration the Supreme Court has done decreed,” its first black-and-white spaces. For DeCarava, the integration of photographs and text combined his observation with Hughes’s storytelling. “I knew the people,” he says, recalling the poet’s contribution. “I could testify to the truth of his fictions.” DeCarava points out that Hughes later called this small volume–which sold for only a dollar and had as light a touch as DeCarava’s photographs–“the heaviest book” he ever wrote.

Though he earned recognition for The Sweet Flypaper of Life, DeCarava never returned to the photo-text. The year the book appeared he opened A Photographer’s Gallery, which he maintained for many years. Still, the contemporary form of the photo-text might be the illustrated museum catalog or coffee-table book; the exhibition catalog, Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective, adds to the number of DeCarava photographs in print. (His art-historian wife, Sherry Turner DeCarava, contributes a sensitive essay, as she did to a volume of his prints brought out by the Friends of Photography in 1981, alongside MOMA curator Peter Galassi’s.)

Especially rewarding, in both the book and the gallery, is the discovery that many of DeCarava’s recent images are among his best. They represent a new direction and a brighter palate. Silver Fence, a 1983 study of a chain-link fence, shimmers with sunlight. Tonally this could be the negative for one of DeCarava’s earlier prints: here he concentrates on the brightest shades of gray and the simplest of compositions. Six Figures in Sunlight, from 1985, is an ethereal blur of children walking toward what looks like the Metropolitan Museum, where DeCarava once protested his exclusion from Thomas Hoving’s infamous Harlem show of 1970, which portrayed Harlem without including black artists. As they dissolve in the bright sun the children seem to be dancing, watched by the older but still childlike photographer from across the street. Watching with him, we feel his heart rise. Full of sentiment, he steers clear of sentimentality. What will Roy DeCarava see next?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Man Coming Up Subway Stairs.