Sadly, in the pantheon of master photographers, there are only two African Americans: Gordon Parks, who died in 2006, and Roy DeCarava. The latter was the better of the two artists; a chronicler of his own Harlem; an eye-poet of the hardscrabble streets where he was born; a master at printing subtle variations between black, pitch black, and pitch blacker. Now aging, and nearly inaccessible, DeCarava has had fewer than 20 solo exhibitions in his 60-year career, despite taking some of the greatest photographs of the 20th Century, including this 1949 piece, Graduation.
It is a photograph loaded with anger and prophecy, but also tenderness. A young girl, out of place in a garbage-strewn Harlem alley, and wearing an elegant Graduation Day dress, meanders with hesitation out of a sunlit section of the picture toward deep shadows that barely reveal the squalor they contain. In a decidedly feminine gesture, she lifts her dress off the ground to keep it clean.
The best photographs ask questions, and DeCarava’s seems to be, “What does this young woman’s future hold now that she has finished school?” The answer, to some extent, is there, as well. She is on the cusp of a transition from what must have been a poor but insular childhood in a nearly all-black neighborhood, to the cruel, adult, 1950s world of Jim Crow, where blacks in America had learned to expect nothing, and education was far less important than skin color. DeCarava handles the symbolism with variations of light, and a triangular arrow that marks the young woman’s path forward.
A giant poster advertising a late-model Chevrolet is attached to a wall in the background — a reminder of the world outside Harlem where many whites drove to and from graduation ceremonies in presumably similar cars. Walking, in such a fine dress, would have been unthinkable in the much of the white universe. White America was busy marching into a Postwar future of shiny cars, clean streets, home ownership and lucrative careers.
bq. Whether impoverished African Americans are moving from the shadows into the sunlight, or vice-versa, remains an open question 60 years after DeCarava took the picture.
The picture is a one-image testimony of everything we Americans should be ashamed of, a legacy of exclusion and fear of “others” that continues even as members of hate groups stockpile weapons in an absurd, redneck reaction to the Obama presidency. The more things change, the more they remain the same, and whether impoverished African Americans are moving from the shadows into the sunlight, or vice-versa, remains an open question 60 years after DeCarava took the picture.
But DeCarava’s work is more complex than it appears.
“No one has ever made photographs more openly tender, and perhaps this is no surprise for an artist whose style is so gentle,” wrote Peter Galassi in the 1996 Museum of Modern Art Catalog, Roy DeCarava, A Retrospective. “But in the pictures there is pain and anger, too.”
DeCarava is a something like Harlem’s William Faulkner. He ventured into commercial work from time to time but focused his efforts on his neighborhood, what the legendary southern writer might have called his own “postage stamp of soil.” Twentieth Century photographers Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and more recently, pale imitators including National Geographic hack David Allan Harvey, the overrated Magnum rock star Alex Soth, and the mediocre Amy Stein have all gone globe-trotting to find the photographs they sought. DeCarava found an entire universe, with all of its truths and injustices, within walking distance of the now painfully gentrified intersection of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York.
But DeCarava is no bumbling, outsider. Originally a painter — as the best photographers often are — he treated photography as an art, not a technique. He is one of the few artists using a camera who understood the idea, born in the late 19th Century, that art was as much about interpreting and reflecting how things are perceived as it was about making what are now commonly called “captures” by contemporary photographers.
Moreover, no Black photographer could have been surrounded by better, more informative influences. He knew painters Romare Beardon, Jacob Lawrence, and Poet Langston Hughes. He photographed John Coltrane, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington.
“It’s not so much the subject that interests me, as much as my perception of the subject,” he told Charlie Rose in a 1996 interview. That is, objectivity was out the window. He worked to record what he saw according to his own ethical code, and according to his own physical senses.
Beyond which, DeCarava was, and is, a master of the photographic medium. His work exploits a rainbow of deep grays, subtle blacks and bright whites. Ansel Adams may be his only rival in the production of delicate, photographic prints, but Adams’ work never packed DeCarava’s social impact, gentle and heartstopping, brutal but soothing. And it is just possible that DeCarava was a better printer. He was certainly a better artist.
bq. When the fat has been trimmed from the meat of 20th Century photography, DeCarava will be seen for what he is.
Contemporary photographers have echoed the “fish out of water” feel of Graduation. Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide’s 1980 photograph, Mujer Angel, shows an indigenous woman in formal dress heading into the desert carrying a large, portable radio. She is dressed as indigenous women never dress when heading into the desert. It is obviously a posed shot, given Iturbide’s propensity for setting up scenes, along with the improbability of the event itself. It is made worse by this rich, Mexico City woman’s habit of portraying indigenous Mexicans as blessed, noble, iguana-eating savages, a posture which has earned her more than one enemy in Juchitan, Mexico, where she made her most well-known photographs, following suggestions by Mexican artistic icons Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Francisco Toledo.
But time is ruthless in her treatment of minor artists such as Iturbide and eternally blesses those of genius. When the fat has been trimmed from the meat of 20th Century photography, DeCarava will be seen for what he is: a fine American photographer who clawed his way up from the bottom and gave us some of our most important, least antagonistic images of Harlem. He is a realist but not objective. And his love for people, all people, is evidenced in his underrated body of work. Few photographers in 1949 could touch him, and few can touch him today. He is the best living American photographer, possibly the best in the world, and will eventually be elevated to the heights he deserves.
In 1999, DeCarava, the first African American to win a Guggenheim Fellowship (1952), was quoted as saying, “In most societies, the artist is a seer. He’s like a priest and he administers to his people, in a sense, the way doctors should be doing, the way preachers should be doing. I think we, artists, perform a service that is absolutely necessary for the human condition.”
The cruelties of racism are temporary, despite the fact that they have gone on for centuries. DeCarava has publicly expressed his feelings that if he were white, he would have been more successful, and he is right. History will correct that injustice.
John Sevigny is a photographer and writer who was born in Miami and lives and works in Mexico. He is a former correspondent for the Associated Press, and for EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. As a fine art photographer, he has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, and Zacatecas in Mexico. He has a blog called Gone City.
Copyright 2009 John Sevigny