Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) spent six decades walking the streets of New York and observing his environment. These contemplative expeditions fostered within him a deep understanding of human nature and the power of seeing. His photographs push the forms found on each print’s surface to connect with the emotional experience produced by viewing itself. DeCarava was interested in what he considered the poetics of the image: those symbolic elements that allow a viewer to create a relationship with what they saw using their own memory and imagination. Every picture was meant to be personal.
In all stages of the image-making process, DeCarava exemplified an intimacy between himself and the world around him. He relied solely on existing light because any kind of mechanical flash would have altered the true essence of the experiences he saw. He refused compositions that reinforced social stereotypes or someone else’s political agenda. With purpose, he initially focused on everyday life in Harlem, because he felt that only a Black photographer could get to the strength, wisdom, and dignity that inform the true heritage of Black people in America. However, his full archive of images represents a broad search for visual meaning—from the civil rights movement to jazz musicians, abstractions, studies of nature and gestures of people—which taken together suggest a unifying symphony of artistic and public life.
Installation view, Roy DeCarava: The Work of Art, at The Underground Museum. Courtesy of The Underground Museum. Photos by Zak Kelley.