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Out of the Shadows

Roy DeCarava's critically acclaimed black-and-white photos of everyday African American life are gaining overdue public recognition.

November 10, 1996|Steve Appleford | Steve Appleford is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer

NEW YORK — The images on the wall behind photographer Roy DeCarava are confoundingly simple: a woman strolls across an empty street, dirty dishes gather on a dark cafe table, an intense young boy leans against a pole on a hot summer day. Small, but deeply human, moments.

DeCarava has spent half a century making photographs like these on the streets of New York City. More often than not, he has concentrated on the African American neighborhoods of Harlem and Brooklyn--people in their homes, in the subway and at jazz clubs--but the work always reaches for a meaningful, universal experience.

"It's about these things that seem relatively unspectacular, unimportant, but they're basic," DeCarava says of these pictures surrounding him at his home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. "It's this idea of the vitality and the importance of just being human. You don't have to be handsome; you don't have to be intelligent. All you have to do is be. That's of value to me."

Boxes of still more photographs are stacked at his feet, part of the aftermath of a traveling career retrospective of nearly 200 black-and-white pictures that arrives at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Thursday. Although the photographer's work has long been admired by critics, his pictures have rarely been seen on such a broad scale, making this year's "Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective," curated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a kind of unveiling for the larger public.

For DeCarava, 76, the recognition is welcome vindication.

"You know what you're doing and you're convinced that you're right," says DeCarava, who until recently had enjoyed only modest rewards during a lifetime of work. "But it certainly helps when people tell you so."

Although he is mostly a street photographer, capturing found scenes by chance and by design on the streets of New York, some of his most moving images emerged from private moments indoors. In 1952, DeCarava became the first black photographer to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, after he proposed to look at his Harlem community from inside its homes.

In his application, DeCarava wrote: "I do not want a documentary or sociological statement, I want a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret."

Many of the resulting pictures became part of a classic 1955 book collaboration with writer Langston Hughes called "The Sweet Flypaper of Life."

The images were scenes caught in homes of black parents, grandparents and children gathered warmly around kitchen tables, on stairwells, on front stoops. It was a demonstration of the realities of black culture, far from the negative caricature DeCarava was all too accustomed to seeing in the media.

The African American community has remained a core subject of his work. And outside his window this afternoon are the usual sounds of the city: voices, passing traffic, car alarms. On a neighbor's fence is a sign that reads, "A Cleaner Block Is Up to You."

DeCarava complains about the commercialization of his neighborhood, with its bustling crowd of liquor stores and pizza parlors, its discount stores and beauty parlors. The photographer has lived on this working-class block for 25 years, long enough to see children grow up to limited life options.

"There are some opportunities," DeCarava says sadly. "But there is so much that is wrong that you just don't know where to begin."

Matters of race have drawn complex responses in DeCarava's work.

"The overall feeling of Roy DeCarava's response to the world is warmth and affection. But it's not just sort of nice-guy photography," says Peter Galassi, the Museum of Modern Art's chief curator of photography, who organized the show. "There's anger in there too."

Reflections on the inevitable racism he confronted as a young man emerge in a picture like "Woman, White Scarf" (1961), which depicts a white woman sashaying smugly past a mournful black woman. In "Boy, Man and Graffiti" (1966), a white boy and a black man rush past one another and a skull painted crudely on a wall.

But anger has never dominated DeCarava's work, any more than any other single subject or cause.

"I refuse to be a victim as much as I can, because the whole purpose of victimization is to immobilize you and keep you from enjoying and being," DeCarava says. "If you're involved in struggle all your life, then you're not living, you're fighting all the time. It begins to be real destructive for everybody."

DeCarava, inspired by the emotionally charged work of Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, first aspired to be a painter. By his late 20s, DeCarava was using a camera as a kind of sketch pad for his painting, and he liked the results so much that he ultimately devoted all his energies to photography.

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