Roy DeCarava 1919-2009

You can read a tribute to Roy DeCarava with a set of images on the Lens blog of the New York Times, and there is longer piece about him in the newspaper. DeCarava was one of the finest photographers of his generation, but somehow failed to quite get the recognition he deserved.

If you don’t already own a copy of his ‘The Sound I Saw‘ which he conceived, wrote and designed in the 1960s but was unable to get published until around 40 years late you should get hold of one now (copies of the softback edition are currently available second-hand at under a tenner – or you can pay about four times as much from other dealers.)  What he subtitled as “improvisations on a jazz theme” became a legend long before it appeared in print. He wrote in it that it “is a book about people, about jazz, and about things…. images for the head and for the heart, and like its subject matter is particular, subjective and individual.

DeCarava was born in Harlem and spent his life there photographing everyday domestic life, producing a unique insider’s view into black experience, although his work also reflects the other ethnic groups in the areas in which he lived. That he also photographed many of the giants of jazz who performed there gives his work an added piquancy for those of us with an interest in the music.

Apart from the retrospective volume by Peter Galassi that accompanied his NoMA show in 1996 (long out of print and very expensive) it was his first book since the famous collaboration with Langston Hughes, ‘The Sweet Flypaper of Life” in 1955, and contains many of his best images.  Three years earlier in 1952 he had become the first black photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship.  You can see 10 of his pictures on line at the Smithsonian, and some at Masters of  Photography. But the best resource I’ve found on-line is at  Monoscope, which presents some of his images along with a TV talk with Charlie Rose, who is a sympathetic listener who lets DeCarava talk for most of around 12 minutes, producing a fine interview.

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