Out of the Shadows

Steve Appleford is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer

The images on the wall behind photographer Roy DeCarava are confoundingly simple: a woman strolls across an empty street, dirty dishes gather on a dark cafe table, an intense young boy leans against a pole on a hot summer day. Small, but deeply human, moments.

DeCarava has spent half a century making photographs like these on the streets of New York City. More often than not, he has concentrated on the African American neighborhoods of Harlem and Brooklyn--people in their homes, in the subway and at jazz clubs--but the work always reaches for a meaningful, universal experience.

"It's about these things that seem relatively unspectacular, unimportant, but they're basic," DeCarava says of these pictures surrounding him at his home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. "It's this idea of the vitality and the importance of just being human. You don't have to be handsome; you don't have to be intelligent. All you have to do is be. That's of value to me."

Boxes of still more photographs are stacked at his feet, part of the aftermath of a traveling career retrospective of nearly 200 black-and-white pictures that arrives at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Thursday. Although the photographer's work has long been admired by critics, his pictures have rarely been seen on such a broad scale, making this year's "Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective," curated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a kind of unveiling for the larger public.

For DeCarava, 76, the recognition is welcome vindication.

"You know what you're doing and you're convinced that you're right," says DeCarava, who until recently had enjoyed only modest rewards during a lifetime of work. "But it certainly helps when people tell you so."

Although he is mostly a street photographer, capturing found scenes by chance and by design on the streets of New York, some of his most moving images emerged from private moments indoors. In 1952, DeCarava became the first black photographer to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, after he proposed to look at his Harlem community from inside its homes.

In his application, DeCarava wrote: "I do not want a documentary or sociological statement, I want a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret."

Many of the resulting pictures became part of a classic 1955 book collaboration with writer Langston Hughes called "The Sweet Flypaper of Life."

The images were scenes caught in homes of black parents, grandparents and children gathered warmly around kitchen tables, on stairwells, on front stoops. It was a demonstration of the realities of black culture, far from the negative caricature DeCarava was all too accustomed to seeing in the media.

The African American community has remained a core subject of his work. And outside his window this afternoon are the usual sounds of the city: voices, passing traffic, car alarms. On a neighbor's fence is a sign that reads, "A Cleaner Block Is Up to You."

DeCarava complains about the commercialization of his neighborhood, with its bustling crowd of liquor stores and pizza parlors, its discount stores and beauty parlors. The photographer has lived on this working-class block for 25 years, long enough to see children grow up to limited life options.

"There are some opportunities," DeCarava says sadly. "But there is so much that is wrong that you just don't know where to begin."

Matters of race have drawn complex responses in DeCarava's work.

"The overall feeling of Roy DeCarava's response to the world is warmth and affection. But it's not just sort of nice-guy photography," says Peter Galassi, the Museum of Modern Art's chief curator of photography, who organized the show. "There's anger in there too."

Reflections on the inevitable racism he confronted as a young man emerge in a picture like "Woman, White Scarf" (1961), which depicts a white woman sashaying smugly past a mournful black woman. In "Boy, Man and Graffiti" (1966), a white boy and a black man rush past one another and a skull painted crudely on a wall.

But anger has never dominated DeCarava's work, any more than any other single subject or cause.

"I refuse to be a victim as much as I can, because the whole purpose of victimization is to immobilize you and keep you from enjoying and being," DeCarava says. "If you're involved in struggle all your life, then you're not living, you're fighting all the time. It begins to be real destructive for everybody."

DeCarava, inspired by the emotionally charged work of Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, first aspired to be a painter. By his late 20s, DeCarava was using a camera as a kind of sketch pad for his painting, and he liked the results so much that he ultimately devoted all his energies to photography.

"It was very satisfying," DeCarava says. "And at the time I needed a way to relate more. Painting is a pretty solitary thing, and I think I was at the stage where I didn't like that. I wanted to go out into the world and meet people.

"Suddenly this new world opened up, and my access to it was the camera. You can be part of it and still be detached."

He knew little of the work of other serious photographers, and it was several years before he discovered the pictures of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

"I consciously, or subconsciously, avoided looking at work of other photographers," DeCarava says now. "I wasn't really interested. The few things that I saw, I wasn't particularly impressed. So I didn't pay too much attention with what was happening. I knew what I wanted to do."

Perhaps as a result, DeCarava's work was utterly lacking the feeling of alienation found in the pictures of many of the most notable street photographers of New York (particularly Robert Frank and William Klein). And with the exception of those few photographers working at the magazines Ebony and the now-defunct Our World, he believes no one else was exploring the reality of black life in America.

But after his Guggenheim, DeCarava had difficulty getting any of his pictures published, having little to show beyond "a lot of wonderful rejection slips."

A friend suggested that DeCarava meet with poet Hughes for advice. When the writer saw the pictures, he immediately offered to write a story around them and make sure it was published.

"I respected him so much that I did something that I had never done before and I will never do again: I gave him carte blanche," DeCarava says. "I gave him 500 pictures and said, 'Go ahead.'

"I was very grateful and proud, because he was very generous. He wasn't at all like some famous people are. He was always accessible. He really cared about people. You could see it if you were around him. I think his concern was very illuminating for me. It was something that I absorbed. His love of what he did, his love of the subject, was something that one could emulate."

"The Sweet Flypaper of Life" was published as a small paperback book and earned its authors relatively little. (It has since been republished in a larger format by Howard University.)

As a husband and father, DeCarava still had to earn a living, and for several years he worked as a commercial illustrator, preferring to draw refrigerators or any other assignments that would not tax his creativity.

He later took some assignment work as a freelance photographer for national magazines, including 10 years as a contract photographer for Sports Illustrated, until 1975. DeCarava wasn't even much of a sports fan; he was hired there after the magazine's art director was shown a copy of "The Sweet Flypaper of Life."

Thus began a period of hustling for assignments he was barely interested in.

"You could very easily get lost in the shuffle. And especially being a nonaggressive person that I was, it didn't help." More important, virtually nothing from the parade of boxers and football players he photographed left him anything he today considers part of his important personal work.

By contrast, his love of jazz led him to document with enthusiasm one of the most important periods of American music. He met and photographed Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and dozens of others. DeCarava's pictures from the period tend to be less stylized than those of other notable jazz photographers; his concern was to capture the artist's emotions.

"These people were giving of themselves to something larger than themselves," DeCarava says now. "I wanted to show that, to show how beautiful that was."

DeCarava did shoot some album covers for the Columbia and Prestige labels but lost interest as art directors began demanding specific artificial images. For him, the whole point was to capture the reality of the setting, whatever he shot. Strobes were never part of his photographic arsenal, often leaving his images a dark alluring mixture of charcoals and grays.

"I don't accept the idea that you can't take a picture here because the light is too dark," DeCarava explains. "If it's important enough to, you try."

Photographers' artificial light, he says, "destroys what one saw."

"But if they're interested in being literal then it doesn't matter, and they use flash and get every pore, every detail and information," he says. "But I'm not interested in information. I'm interested in feeling, in mood, in intuition. I take pictures where people say you're not supposed to take pictures. But that's the way I am. I value what I see."

In 1963, DeCarava traveled south to attend the March on Washington, the massive demonstration that climaxed with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

"I went, I guess, out of a sense of responsibility," DeCarava remembers. "I took a lot of pictures. It was funny the way it turned out. I really didn't go there to take pictures, I just wanted to be there."

He shot several rolls of film, and the images that he found most lasting were not of protesters carrying signs but rather ones that captured the pride, energy and emotional intensity of the event.

"By that time I had realized that it wasn't about the particulars, it wasn't about the subject matter, except the general subject matter of the human condition. The advantage of going to a place like the March on Washington is the freedom to shoot. Nobody was going to ask why you were photographing. The pictures that I took and valued could have been taken anywhere."

With his retrospective scheduled to tour the U.S. through 1999, and with new proposals to send it overseas and back again, DeCarava isn't expecting to fall back into obscurity. But although he's enjoying the new attention to his work, DeCarava thinks of himself first and foremost as someone who needs to be out on the streets with his camera.

"I guess it's the energy of life itself that you're dealing with," he says. "There is constantly this interplay between the people and the time and the place. This is fascinating, because it tells you so much. All you have to do is look."


* "Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective," L.A. County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Thursday through Jan. 26. Closed Mondays. Adults, $6; senior citizens and students, $4; children 6-17, $1. (213) 857-6000. DeCarava will lecture Thursday at 7 p.m., followed by a reception and a viewing of the exhibition. Reservations required: (213) 857-6541.

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