The Roy and Sherry DeCarava Archives and First Print Press Plan Centennial Celebration of the Life in Art of Photographer Roy DeCarava
NEW YORK, NY, October 16, 2018 /24-7PressRelease/ — December 9, 2019 marks the Centennial of the Harlem-born, New York-based artist/photographer Roy DeCarava (pronounced: Dee-cah-rah-vah) (1919-2009). The first African-American photographer to win the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship award, DeCarava’s wide-ranging expressive and iconic explorations of American life- photographic meditations on human and civic relationships, incisive studies of individuals in urban grounds, landscapes, abstractions and images of key creative moments in the lives of jazz musicians-made him one of the most widely accomplished photographic artists of the modern American era.
Working exclusively with silver gelatin black and white 35mm film, DeCarava’s approach to image-making pioneered a substantively new way to photograph that eschewed documentary and journalistic idioms in favor of a more painterly aesthetic. Grounded in a unified theory of the visual plane, his subtle mastery of tonal and spatial elements and devotion to the medium as a means of artistic expression produced images that carry a deep emotional impact in their immediate presence to the viewer while also revealing less-than-visible terrains. He opened the first gallery devoted exclusively to photography as a fine art in the United States, ushering in a modern era with the exhibition of works by a younger generation of diverse and visionary practitioners. In recent years his work has become a major influence on a new group of emergent cinematographers, film makers and video artists who cite his intensely personal approach, rendering both a direct and an allusive, layered image.
Celebrations of Roy DeCarava’s Centennial began with his participation in the traveling exhibition, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. Originally curated as a survey by the Tate Modern in London, it debuted in the United States at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, February 3- April 28, 2018, and continued on to the Brooklyn Museum, September 7, 2018,, 21- February 3, 2019. DeCarava’s photography is presented in this exhibition, along with the paintings, sculptures, photography, and murals of numerous artists including among others, Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Noah Purifoy, Martin Puryear, Betye Saar, Alma Thomas, Charles White, William T. Williams, colleagues in painting and sculpture who were working independently but synergistically in the DeCarava decades spanning 1963 to 1983.
The public is also invited to learn more about Roy DeCarava and his work at the Brooklyn Museum series Brooklyn Talks: The Sweet Flypaper of Life with Art Historian Sherry Turner DeCarava on Thursday, November 8, 7:00 – 9:00 pm.
Other in-depth exhibitions of Roy DeCarava’s work, slated through 2019, are planned around similar and expanded themes and will be hosted by a variety of venues. These Centennial events include public seminars, talks and readings, musical performances, and multi-media exhibitions whose program details are forthcoming. The first solo DeCarava exhibition in the Centennial Series will open in California in 2018.
“Roy was a polymath: an inventor, a painter, a poet, a photographer, an artist, a man of heart,” says Sherry Turner-DeCarava, art historian, Executive Director of the Archives, and Roy’s colleague and partner in marriage of 40 years. Author of a seminal text on his work, published in 1981 by the Friends of Photography Carmel, California, Turner-DeCarava is spearheading a multi-stage publishing project that seeks to return several of his catalogues to print, as well as develop new books of previously unseen works. “He devoted almost his entire creative life to photography,” she notes, “working with tremendous discipline for six decades, consistently producing pivotal and groundbreaking work during one of the longest careers in American art photography.”
The DeCarava Centennial will include the reissue of two major books: The Sweet Flypaper of Life, reissued by First Print Press and distributed by David Zwirner Books, a now classic collaboration with the poet Langston Hughes originally published in 1955, and the sound i saw: improvisation on a jazz theme, a visual and literary tribute to DeCarava’s experience and resonance with the music he loved, and the men and women who created it.
The Sweet Flypaper of Life is a moving, photo-poetic work about people, promise and peril in Harlem. In 1952, DeCarava won a $3,200 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the first Black photographer to win such an award. With the modest financial support of the one-year grant, DeCarava compiled 141 images of Harlem life he had been making since the mid-1940’s. Langston Hughes supplied a fictive narration from the perspective of a Harlem resident, an older woman reflecting on life in that city-within-a-city.
The book features a number of wonderful, enduring voices and images: from an inscrutable but proud boy, David, poised against a traffic light, to kids cooling off with the water spray from a fire hydrant; from a father holding his two children while he’s in deep conversation, to the tightly framed image of a preacher’s tambourine and drum in search of its next opportunity to give the daily music for spirit seekers. In the decades since its first publication, The Sweet Flypaper of Life has continued to speak to generations of Americans who share the value in its inclusive story and collaborative design.
In the sound i saw: improvisation on a jazz theme, DeCaravadraws a parallel between capturing a once-in-a-lifetime image, and the improvisational nature of jazz. A devotee of the artform, DeCarava took his camera whenever he went to hear this uniquely American music and along the way created a collection of photographs of musicians, both known and unknown, in conversation with other images to create a rich, complex portrait of the music itself; images that intend to stand for this sound. He eventually sequenced these into a hand-made maquette in 1960, the sound i saw: improvisation on a jazz theme, which remained long forgotten in a storage space until Turner-DeCarava re-discovered it decades later.
DeCarava’s fluid and formidable images range from John Coltrane blowing his patented “sheets of sound” on his soprano saxophone, and Billie Holiday in the midst of a fine and mellow vocal passage to a solemn, yet soulful image of vocalist Joe Williams on stage reverberating at the microphone, and the great drummer Elvin Jones in the whirling dervish of one of his volcanic solos. While the book features a host of notable jazz musicians, taken as a whole it explores the expansive nature of time within the music and the audiences who flocked to hear it. In doing so, DeCarava achieves something that is quietly spectacular and unique in the history of photography: a wide-ranging, ruminative vision of music from a solo artistic experience.
“Roy cared deeply about musicians and what they do,” says Turner-DeCarava. “He perceived musicians as artists but also as workers, seeing them as an integral part of the community rather than as entertainers or celebrities.” She notes that “this approach allowed him to delve into and to create an experience that upends reader expectations while deeply engaging their senses.”
DeCarava’s work carries this ability to reach the viewer as a counterpoint to the view of photography as document. He was an early advocate of silver gelatin as a fine art, when that is the intent and skill of the practitioner. In doing so he energized the public discussion about the meaning and value of photography, and engaged a deeper public discussion of the physics of image-making. Notoriously insistent on utilizing only the available light and directly printing his own images in the darkroom without manipulation as tenets of this new way, DeCarava believed that the process of making a photograph begins long before one even picks up the camera and is not complete until the image has been printed to its inner calling.
As essayist/photographer Teju Cole wrote in his appreciation of DeCarava in The New York Times, “[h]e worked without assistants and did his own developing, and almost all his work bore the mark of his idiosyncrasies. The chiaroscuro effects came from technical choices: a combination of underexposure, darkroom virtuosity and occasionally printing on soft [graded] paper. And yet there’s also a sense that he gave the pictures what they wanted, instead of imposing an agenda on them.”
Bennett Simpson, Curator of Photography at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, describes DeCarava’s pictures in an exhibition catalogue as “…suffused with a kind of lyrical haze, a propensity for dim light and shadow, and suggest a language of the self right in tone, feeling, and abstraction. [His] later photographs dwell on patterns found in the urban landscape with an ‘allover’ attention to growth and diffusion. These works recall the cosmic mingling of abstract form and figuration.” (Blues for Smoke, Museum of Contemporary Art, L.A.).
DeCarava came to mainstream attention in 1950 when Edward Steichen, then head of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art New York (MoMA), saw DeCarava’s work and invited him to participate in the ground-breaking Family of Man exhibition. It featured now-iconic DeCarava photographs: Man coming up subway stairs, depicting the exhaustion and ascent of a working class man, and Hallway, an atmospheric work which shows an impossibly narrow passageway that somehow also suggests unknown possibilities.
DeCarava’s first major solo exhibition was at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1969, followed by a 1976 retrospective at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. In 1996, MoMA unveiled Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective, a major summation of his on-going work, which was followed by solo and group shows in cities around the world including Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, London, and Bangkok. In 2006, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest honor given to American artists.
And yet for all of his artistic genius, DeCarava was also a family man, devoted equally to his family with Turner-DeCarava as he was to his work, evidenced in some of the most moving, visually elegant and emotionally connected images of family life he produced. His partner has mused,” With Roy and I there was a sense of kismet, that we were both exactly where we were supposed to be – with our family, our archive, and our life together. Turner-DeCarava continues, “I think it is rare to find one’s life goal and an environment that nourishes and supports its pursuit. Yet, this is possible and essential to sustaining meaningful culture. DeCarava was part of the avant-garde of his time, one that we can through his art return to and be renewed by at this very moment.”
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