Friday, May 27

‘I was looking for beauty’: Roy DeCarava’s widow remembers a master photographer | Photography

THEone time, when asked why his tracks were so dark, Roy DeCarava responded, “I think photography is not about black and white; It’s about grays.” At the David Zwirner Gallery in London, the first UK exhibition of DeCarava’s work in over 30 years it’s a quietly mesmerizing testament to the expressive hues of that neutral, in-between color.

“Roy is an artist known for the darkness of his prints,” says his widow, Sherry Turner DeCarava, an art historian who has deftly curated the exhibit to highlight the sustaining ambient music of her late husband’s work. “But it’s a deep understanding of the nature of light that gives quality to his images.”

An example of this at Zwirner is his fascinating portrait of jazz musicians John Coltrane and Elvin Jones, in which the eye is initially drawn to the curve of light that snakes along the polished surface of a saxophone played by the great saxophonist Up close and in profile, Coltrane’s face emerges from the surrounding darkness, a study in quiet concentration. In the background, the menacing figure of drummer Jones is depicted as a blurry, blurry but distinctive silhouette. In its mood and mystery, it is a world away from traditional portraiture and, like all the images in the show, requires a degree of concentration on the part of the viewer, the darkness slowly revealing shadows and textures that testify to the unique creative process. by DeCarava.

“Roy was looking for beauty, that’s really what he was looking for,” explains Sherry, who traveled from New York for the opening of the exhibition. “He was attentive to the transcendent and the sublime in our daily lives, but he also understood that a photograph only comes together as a complete statement in the darkroom water bath. He was an intuitive master of that complex process.”

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A skilful selection of his portraits of jazz musicians mark an exhibition that posits him primarily as a poet of the everyday sublime. His predominant theme is the black American urban experience in all its intimacy and everydayness, which he captures in gestures and gazes, and in textures and pictorial forms. In doing so, he gave expression to a world almost invisible to the white mainstream, while at the same time subverting the received ways in which that experience was traditionally captured by photojournalists and documentary filmmakers.

In 1952, when DeCarava applied for a Guggenheim Grant for a project recording everyday life in his native Harlem, he made it clear that he did not want it to be “a documentary or sociological statement” but “a creative expression” of community life. . His goal, he wrote, was to “photograph Harlem through black people,” which is completely different from photographing black people in Harlem. The difference in intent speaks volumes about your creative sensibilities.

“I was very clear from the beginning that what I was doing was art,” says Sherry. “He was defined by aesthetics, not just geography or sociology, which people in the past were quick to attribute to his work.”

Skylight, 1965, Roy DeCarava.
Everyday beauty… Skylight, 1965, Roy DeCarava. Photograph: © The Estate of Roy DeCarava. Courtesy of David Zwirner

Often, as his minimally descriptive titles suggest, DeCarava captured everyday moments of quiet interaction or even quieter solitude: Man Sitting in the Sun; two men talking, lamppost; Woman Resting, Subway Entrance. Seamlessly blending the formal and the deeply atmospheric, her interiors are often evoked by a single, almost mundane word: Hallway, Skylight, Coathanger. This is an artist who looked deeply and patiently at the ordinary world around him, attentive to its everyday beauty, and asks us to do the same with his work.

Born into poverty in Harlem in 1919, Roy DeCarava was raised by a single mother, a Jamaican immigrant, who encouraged him from childhood to follow his creative instincts. He studied art history in high school and then painting at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York, where, after a few years, the coincidentally racist attitudes of his contemporaries forced him to drop out and continue his studies at the Harlem Community Arts Center. Later, when he was drafted into the US Army and stationed in Louisiana in the segregated South, he suffered a mental breakdown as a result of the brutal racism he experienced there.

In the early 1940s, having tentatively adopted photography as a reference for his paintings, he became increasingly intrigued by its aesthetic possibilities. His apprenticeship in painting and printmaking was, Sherry says, crucial to his way of seeing.

“Back then, the gatekeepers of the major art institutions did not accept photography as art,” he says, “but to him it was a very malleable medium and he constantly reconsidered his approach. It would be hard to think of another photographer who thought so deeply, but also so intuitively, about print. With the gelatin silver process, you never know what you have until the image appears. It’s not made by you, it’s made by light and, in the end, it all comes down to a matter of seconds. Roy was a master at timing. For him, it was as much an emotional and psychological process as it was a technical one.”

In 1954, the 34-year-old DeCarava met with writer Langston Hughes, who was so impressed by his Harlem photographs that he urged his publisher, Simon & Schuster, to publish a book featuring them, for which he provided the text. The Sweet Flypaper of Life is now considered a classic, though Hughes’s lyrical prose, told through the eyes of Sister Mary Bradley, may not have aged as well as the images.

Billie Holiday, 1952, Roy DeCarava.
Young and inquisitive… Billie Holiday, 1952, Roy DeCarava. Photograph: © The Estate of Roy DeCarava. Courtesy of David Zwirner

“They were close friends for a while,” says Sherry, “but Langston was a bit older and more conservative, and Roy found it difficult to accept some of his positions, as the 1960s brought a new, more radical political message. They grew apart, but the book they created was very important, politically and artistically. It validated the everyday humanity of an entire culture.”

Both in his quiet studies of people and places and in his wonderful atmospheric portraits of jazz, which were collected in a book aptly titled The Sound I Saw, DeCarava’s gaze is intimate without ever being intrusive. She “understood the particular issues of the medium,” as Sherry puts it, “and she never disrespected her gift for intimacy.”

Here and there in his work, certain portraits break the mood of calm contemplation. Perhaps the most vibrant is her portrayal of a young and inquisitive Billie Holiday, alert and totally engaged with her camera. Another is his imposing study of jazz’s great iconoclast, Ornette Coleman, who is captured in deep, almost commanding thought. “Roy respected Ornette,” says Sherry, when I ask if the two knew each other. “You can tell because he makes his images of him look like they’re carved in granite. I think she respected Ornette’s vision of the future because she was there with him in that sense. Back then, critics were reluctant to consider what each was doing his way, but over time, the true value of what they achieved continues to grow. They are both still contemporary artists.”

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