• U.S.


4 minute read
Richard Lacayo

WHEN HE STARTED TAKING PICtures around New York City in the late 1940s, Roy DeCarava stepped into the most irresistible role that photography offers: a walker in the city, a camera-equipped descendant of the quick-witted literary strollers that the French called flaneurs. Looking out for the knotty surprises the street has in store, he was like Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris or Harry Callahan in Chicago. What was different for DeCarava was that most of his streets were in Harlem, which made him a roving eye in a part of town that the rest of the world didn’t see much of. In the retrospective of his work that runs through May 7 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, then travels to eight other American cities, there are two DeCaravas on the walls side by side and often in the same picture: the DeCarava who relishes the way light makes a sawtooth descent down a metal gate, and the DeCarava who mulls over the pleasures and predicaments of black life in America. To the question of what’s personal and what’s political, what’s lyric and what’s documentary, he offers back a teasing answer. It all is.

For most of his career DeCarava, who was born in 1919, has been a freelance photographer. He was 35 when he had his first critical and commercial success, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a 1955 book that combines his pictures of Harlem life with text by the poet Langston Hughes. If the book is sometimes guilty of the blandness of concerned photography, it also contains pictures that mark the beginning of DeCarava’s best work, most of which dates from the 1950s and ’60s. His street pictures speak in the international language of the snapshot aesthetic. Figures are cut by the edges of the frame. Serendipitous little details, like the windblown edge of a scarf, take on large but ambiguous meaning. But because DeCarava is black, or because his subjects are, those same details can take on additional layers of ambiguity. Look at the wedge of sunlight that hems in the girl in his 1949 picture Graduation. Because of the way it seems to guide her into a more confined future, the light feels ominous. Because the girl is black, the hint of dwindling expectations has an additional gravity for her situation and for DeCarava’s account of it.

Maybe his fondness for the bonds of community explains why so many of his other streetscapes are warmer than comparable pictures by other great names in the same tradition. For the most part DeCarava is less gloomy than Robert Frank, less chilly than Garry Winogrand. What he likes is the way the flouncing liner of a woman’s overcoat rhymes with a slice of sunlight as she steps down a stairway. Even though the top of the frame cuts off the upper half of her body, she’s not altogether anonymous. He still lets us sense her aplomb.

Yet he also has a literal dark side. His most enduring pictures dare you to see in the dark. They’re so heavily shadowed that your eyes have to adjust to the carbon-tone depths. In his portraits of jazz and blues artists like John Coltrane and Jimmy Scott, the darkness of the nightspots where they work is also a spiritual working condition, a favorable climate for an art in which the self might need to be in communication with its surrounding shadows. There’s a different feeling to the darkness in his after-hours street scenes. This isn’t just the world at night. It’s the world in which night is the rule, where identity is outlined in question marks and feeling has the tone and density of an anvil.

What the painter Ad Reinhardt did in his black-on-black abstractions of the 1950s, DeCarava does with these photographs, teasing out the psychological and spiritual powers of darkness. One thing shadows tell you is that nothing worth knowing is instantly fathomable. When DeCarava is at his best, he sees things in that light.

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