Last week American photography lost another of its grand masters. Roy DeCarava died at the age of 87 in New York on October 27th. He was an exacting presence in the field of photography and as much of a perfectionist as another photography icon, Irving Penn, who died at the age of 92 earlier in October. In fact, the two had much in common: both trained as painters before becoming photographers and both evolved a strict and distinct style of photography. And both made many of their images for the printed page. Penn worked for fashion magazines while DeCarava worked as a freelance photographer for magazines like Fortune and Newsweek and realized some of his most lasting recognition on the pages of publications that are now considered masterpieces of collaborative expression: Sweet Flypaper of Life, DeCarava’s photographic collaboration with poet Langston Hughes which was published in 1952 and The Sound I Saw: Improvisation on a Jazz Theme, his lifetime project of photographs of jazz musicians in performance, finally published in 2003. I was fortunate enough to have spent time with both Penn and DeCarava and with each you had the feeling of visiting an artist, who, though elegantly fastidious, was also a workman; each absolute in the belief that their handwork was equally useful and glorious. If both were also occasionally prickly, it could be utterly excused by their dedication. But while Penn’s domain remained, by and large, the studio (if need be the outside was brought inside for the camera), DeCarava’s rigorous work ethic took him to the streets. A life-long New Yorker, DeCarava almost always photographed close to home. And on the streets or interiors of New York’s Harlem or later Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, he worked without the fuss of studio, equipment, or staff. In almost each of his photographs there is evidence of the deep shadow that only a city street bordered by tall buildings can produce. In DeCarava’s photographs the light itself is an authentic character. “I do not want a documentary or sociological statement,” he wrote in his application for the Guggenheim Fellowship he was awarded in 1952 (becoming the first black photographer to achieve this). His goal, he explained, was “a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.” DeCarava is important because he took the form of social documentary photography and made it subjective and lyrical. As one of the first African American photographers of the modern era he depicted black life with an intimacy and sweetness that was unprecedented. The images that DeCarava has left for the history of photography are unquestionably an important legacy. As important may be his work as an educator (he taught at Hunter College in New York for many years). He is model for generations to follow. Roy, go in peace. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is fortunate to have a collection of photographs by Roy DeCarava and Irving Penn. Visit here to view a selection of DeCarava's photographs.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.