In late October, on the last day of Roy DeCarava’s photography exhibition, “Light Break,” at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea, Sherry Turner DeCarava, the show’s curator, stood in front of a buzzing crowd discussing a handful of her late husband’s photographs. It was the most comprehensive display of his images since his 1996 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and a palpable excitement hovered in the space. She spoke with a quiet intensity, moving seamlessly from well-known photographs such as 1949’s “Graduation” (a moment that she said “seized his imagination”) to deeper cuts like “Grass” (1991), an aesthetic victory that demonstrated his interest in “lush tonalities,” and “Silhouette” (1964), a study of the body and of how “anger and ego can contort the physical form.”
In contrast to the prevailing assessment of DeCarava’s 60-year career as just a documentarian of black life in America, Turner DeCarava focused her tour on his process and discipline, his aesthetic and literary interests, his fascination with the details of everyday life and his sense of humor. That same energy and consideration can be felt throughout two new books, “Roy DeCarava: Light Break” and “Roy DeCarava: The Sound I Saw,” published to coincide with concurrent centennial exhibitions at David Zwirner’s two New York locations this year.
DeCarava might be best known for “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” his 1955 collaboration with Langston Hughes that was republished last year. Animating Hughes’s fictional story-in-verse about a Harlem family, DeCarava’s photographs cemented his reputation for imagining the lives of black Americans. But to understand the totality of his oeuvre, one must begin with his early days. Born in Harlem in 1919, he began his career as a painter, enrolling in 1938 at The Cooper Union for two years, and then at the Harlem Community Art Center and the George Washington Carver Art School, where he explored printmaking and studied with the painter Charles White.
DeCarava took his earliest photographs as references for his paintings, but by the mid-40s, he’d abandoned the brush altogether. “Through the camera I was able to make contact with the world,” he once said, “and express my feelings about it more directly.” In the darkroom he attempted to conjure the depths and definitions of objects, light and the human form. And he was largely successful. The cumulative effect of the images in “Light Break,” spanning 1948 to 2006, is a meditation on the virtues of patience and commitment to one’s craft. His black-and-white photographs speak to one another, like plates 59 through 67, featuring pairs of men and women in public spaces. They can be read together as a study of intimacy, from various perspectives and distances: an examination of the relationship between physical proximity and emotional closeness.
While “Light Break” includes some of DeCarava’s photographs of jazz musicians, these are the entire focus of “The Sound I Saw,” which the artist originally compiled in the early ’60s and dedicated to the “incomparable Billie Holiday” and her peers, “who so graciously and generously give of themselves to the world.” Accompanied by his original poems, many of the images in this book — musicians juxtaposed with nature and everyday objects — are full-bleed, covering entire pages without margins. The effect overwhelms the senses and communicates the verve of jazz as an all-encompassing, all-consuming genre.
Radiclani Clytus’s closing essay quotes DeCarava in its epigraph: “The major definition [in the eyes of commentators] has been that I’m a documentary photographer; and then I became a people photographer; and then I became a street photographer; and then I became a jazz photographer; and, oh yes, I mustn’t forget, I am a black photographer. And there’s nothing wrong with any of those definitions. The only trouble is that I need all of them … [and more] to define myself.” Together, “Light Break” and “The Sound I Saw” invite us to broaden our understanding of the artist and his legacy.