Photography has always been used as a powerful tool for social change. From Frederick Douglass’ early adoption of photography a medium for countering negative images, to Sojourner Truth’s use of Cartes de Visites, W.E.B DuBois’ curated images at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, to James Van Der Zee’s documenting of the black middle class during the Harlem Renaissance, photography remains as an essential vehicle for shaping the narrative around black life.
But in the 1950’s African-Americans continued to fight negative imagery in the media and in the arts; we were caught in a double bind between struggling with our portrayal by outside forces and a photographic community’s slow acceptance of black photographers whose editorial eye was critical to visual storytelling. Roy DeCarava’s work stands out as an example of a visionary style that was once again, ahead of its time; his relative obscurity in photographic circles early in his career is an unfortunate example of how his brilliance was dimmed, but not completely. His love for photography was so strong and so evident in his work, his artistic voice would never be silenced.
Influenced by the work of Charles White, DeCarava began his artistic career painting. After attending Cooper Union for a brief period of time, he transferred schools and opted for the vibrancy, immediacy & realism of photography. His work captures light and shadow to evoke emotion not only in the physical features of his subjects, but also in their surrounding environment.
In the 1950’s he was the first black photographer to receive a Guggenheim scholarship and with the grant money he chose to photograph the people in his community of Harlem.
“Black people in America were not viewed as worthy subject matter, we were portrayed either in a superficial or caricatured way, or as a problem.” Mainstream publishing’s rejection of images created of black people through DeCarava’s lens led to a unique collaboration with Langston Hughes. When looking through the book “The Sweet Flypaper of Life”, with lush images of Harlem streetscapes next to everyday photos of tender moments between family members at home, the images take on both a photojournalistic and artistic quality that capture emotion in ways that have been replicated by contemporary artists like Carrie Mae Weems.
This short film documenting his career by Carroll Blue is filled with his most famous work.