RIP: Photographer Roy DeCarava, 1919-2009


Roy DeCarava, a key figure in postwar photography, died Tuesday at his home in New York City. DeCarava (pronounced dee-cuh-RAH-vah) turned his lens on the neighborhood of Harlem during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, depicting the everyday African American experience from an insider’s perspective. His work, painterly studies of shadow and darkness, transcended racial boundaries, juxtaposing stark black-and-white tonality with highly impressionistic composition. Click through to view some of DeCarava’s most iconic images and hear what the media and art establishment have to say about his legacy.

DeCarava was the first black photographer to receive a Guggenheim fellowship with the receipt of a $3,200 grant in 1952. His first major exhibit was at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego in 1986; one decade later came a landmark solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

Roy DeCarava, Graduation (1949)

Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at MoMA: “What’s extraordinary about the pictures is the way they capture his lyrical sense of life. You see pain, you see anger and you see an extraordinary quality of tenderness.” [ArtsBeat]

John Sevigny, for Guernica: “[DeCarava was] a chronicler of his own Harlem; an eye-poet of the hardscrabble streets where he was born; a master at printing subtle variations between black, pitch black, and pitch blacker.” [Guernica]

Arthur Ollman, founding director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego: “Photo editors came along who could relate to editorial dissidence. Roy was sometimes referred to as a black photographer, a qualifier that can be a subtle attempt to marginalize someone.” [LA Times]

“Smooth, silky, smoky and gentle; as formal as you might expect from the painter he once wanted to be, Roy DeCarava’s photographs speak in a language far softer than we’re accustomed to now. They are no less powerful for their subtlety. They are meant to repay close study and they do.” [New York Times Lens blog]

DeCarava, in a 1996 interview with National Public Radio: “There were no black images of dignity, no images of beautiful black people. There was this big hole. I tried to fill it.” [LA Times]

DeCarava, in his application for the 1952 Guggenheim fellowship: “I do not want a documentary or sociological statement. My goal is a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.”

Roy DeCarava, Man with Portfolio (1959)

Roy DeCarava, Window and Stove (1951)

Roy DeCarava, Gittel (1950)

Roy DeCarava, Mississippi freedom marcher, Washington, DC (1963)

Read the full LA Times obit here.