Harlem Views

Roy DeCarava has long been one of my favourite photographers, and his ‘The Sound I Saw‘, pictures of his from the 1960s was one of the more interesting publications of the early years of this century, and one that I often reach down from the shelf in my living room to leaf through. It helps of course that in the 60s, before became a photographer I was a great jazz fan (and the world’s worst tenor sax.)

The book is about jazz and Harlem, and is a kind of improvisation around his pictures and poetry of jazzmen and Harlem, something I can’t pick up and leaf through without the sound of Ellington’s ‘Harlem Airshaft‘ and other compositions including ‘Drop Me Off At Harlem’ springing into my head. I think too of Ben Webster (pictured here with Coltrane) who I once spent an afternoon with, trying to keep him sober for the evening’s concert with spectacular lack of success but who despite that reduced me to tears with a few breathy notes and continued to play a set that left me emotionally exhausted.

I was pleased a day or two ago to come across John Edwin Mason‘s blog and an article Roy DeCarava’s Harlem in which he rightly calls DeCarava “the greatest of all photographers of Harlem” and which includes video about him and links to a fine essay by A D Coleman. Elsewhere there is a nice review of the (re-issued) 1955 book The Sweet Flypaper of Life he produced with poet Langston Hughes by Alan Thomas and there is a fine set of pictures on the 2009 obituary programme on NPR. There is a DeCarava archive site, but authorisation is needed to access the images. There is another obit at BlackandWhiteCities, which links to the NYT Lens feature, as well as the JazzWax tribute with the Webster/Coltrane image and more – and you can read a long scholarly article by Rebecca Cobby, ‘Visions, dreams and a few nightmares’: Roy DeCarava’s Representations of African American Workers in Harlem‘ in the BAAS journal.

Mason’s post compares DeCarava’s view as an artist and an insider to that of photojournalist Gordon Parks, and the triumph and tragedy of his fine photo essay ‘A Harlem Family‘ which appeared on pages 48-62 of the edition of Life Magazine for March 8, 1968, the first of five features in a special section ‘The Cycle of Despair: The Negro and the City. As Mason points out in a second post ‘Gordon Parks: “A Harlem Family,” Life Magazine, 1968‘,this was published after “the end of the long hot summer of 1967, a summer of urban uprisings in black America.”

The feature is worth reading and thinking about, with some interesting reflections on the essay and the publication, and I think too on the role of photography and photojournalism which remain pertinent.  Mason ends with an account of the tragedy which followed – although unconnected – for the family Parks had photographed and Park’s own thoughts, as well as linking to an exhibition of the work marking the centenary last November of Park’s birth at the Studio Museum in Harlem, continuing until March 10, 2013, with an exhibition catalogue to accompany the five volume publication of Park’s work by Steidl.

Although a fine publication for libraries, at £148 it seems a little excessive both in terms of cost and shelf space for impoverished photographers, particularly those like me whose walls are already full of books. Perhaps a single print volume with an accompanying DVD with a larger selection of images would be more attractive to a wider audience.

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