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Roy DeCarava, “Two women, mannequin’s hand” (1952)
Roy DeCarava, “Two women, mannequin’s hand” (1952)© The Estate of Roy DeCarava. All rights reserved Courtesy David Zwirner

Roy DeCarava’s powerful portraits of 20th century Harlem

A new exhibition brings together the most evocative portraits from the photographer’s extraordinary archive

“In times of great complexity and peril, artists are temperature-sensitive to the world around them,” explains Sherry Turner DeCarava, art historian and widow of Roy DeCarava, the pioneering photographer celebrated for elevating the perception of photography as a fine art form. ”His work is testimony to the breadth of his artistic vision and his commitment to understanding the modern world via a complex political, economic, and aesthetic reality.”

Born in Harlem in 1919, DeCarava spent over six decades creating a rich body of work explicating and immortalising the world around him – the everyday life of his beloved community in New York as well as the famous (and infamous) jazz musicians of the day, and placing Black lives in the forefront of his images. Synthesising the immediacy and opportunism of documentary and street photography with the painter’s artistic sensibility, his black-and-white silver gelatin photographs contributed profoundly to transforming the status of the photographic image. Now, a new exhibition at David Zwirner’s London gallery brings together selected works by the acclaimed photographer.

It’s no surprise that he trained as a draftsman and a painter before turning to photography. “DeCarava understood the medium of silver gelatin photography much as a painter understands their palette or a musician their instrument,” Sherry Turner DeCarava tells Dazed. Initially using the camera solely to collect visual references for his paintings, by the mid-1940s he had abandoned the canvas entirely for his 35mm camera, but his painterly sense of composition and deep chiaroscuro would never leave him. “He created an essential opening in the field of art for serious aesthetic inquiry that is both rooted in the specificity of silver gelatin and, at the same time, challenges us to expand our understanding of it.”

Notably, in 1955 he collaborated with acclaimed American writer Langston Hughes on the extraordinary hybrid of poetry and photography, The Sweet Flypaper of Life (since re-issued by David Zwirner books). Legend has it that the pair got talking to one another on a street corner in upper Manhattan and their conversation led to Hughes introducing DeCarava to his publishers, Simon & Schuster, who fell in love with the poignant portraits of his Harlem neighbourhood. 

“The search for an aesthetic way of life is a central tenet of humanity. Artists like DeCarava help point the way to these discoveries through their diligence, discipline, and belief in the creative spirit to transform the lives of people,” Sherry Turner DeCarava continues. “This is a worldview that transcends document and essentially asks an audience to engage the rigour of looking deeply.”

Alongside other significant photographers of his age, DeCarava’s images remain exceptional for their rare compassion and intimacy. His portraits are thronging with life. As a statement by the gallery says, “The search for beauty within this modern conundrum is the hallmark of his work, and achieving a vibrant and meditative voice, he remains a central beacon for contemporary artists.”

Roy DeCarava: Selected Works opens at David Zwirner, London, on January 14 2022