Man Coming Up From the Subway Stairs, 1952
Roy DeCarava is a new artist to me, but only me since he had a long and distinguished career as a photographer who counted Edward Steichen and Gordon Parks among his mentors. He was a native of Harlem born there in 1919. He came to photography relatively late in life after an extensive career as a painter and printmaker, only in the late 1940s. He worked for the Works Progress Administration as an artist during the 1930s, and served in the military during World War II in the very segregated South where he had his first experiences of racism and discrimination. He took up photography after the war and embarked on a flourishing new career. He published a number of books of his photography, photo essays mostly. He photographed many music notables including Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and many others. He established workshops to help young and up and coming photographers. He taught for many years at Hunter College in New York. He died in 2009 at age 89.
DeCarava spent a lot of time in the darkroom on the photo above of a man coming up the stairs out of the subway station. He worked very hard on getting the darks just right. So much of his best photography uses very dark tones in ways that are very poetic and evocative, and also very original. DeCarava was his own unique act in modern photography. He didn't quite do narrative photography as Gordon Parks famously did in his photo stories from Harlem. But neither does his work fit into abstract photography created by such artists as Aleksandr Rodchenko and Edward Weston. De Carava's work even at its most formal is ultimately about people, what the photographer Alan Thomas called his "gentle humanism."
Darkness in most imagery implies some kind of dread along the lines of evil and death. That's not quite the role of darkness in DeCarava's work, though sometimes it can suggest dread or sorrow. Most of the time, it plays the complement of light. He embraces darkness positively whether it's the shade on a hot summer day, or the splendor of dark skin. Many of his best compositions are starkly simple and suggest abstraction while not quite being abstract. The subjects in DeCarava's photos still matter in a way they don't in Rodchenko photos.
DeCarava's photos are a happy discovery for me, and I hope to learn from them for some of my own work.
Self Portrait, 1956
Man in a Phone Booth, New York, 1956
Sun and Shade, 1952
Boy, Hand on Shoulder, 1952
Shirley Embracing Sam, 1952