Roy DeCarava: 1919-2009

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Graduation, Roy DeCarava, 1949/University of Virginia Art Museum

The photographer Roy DeCarava has died. The great chronicler of 20th century African-American life, especially in New York, DeCarava had a sophisticated aesthetic and a capacious sense of life. As one example of just how sophisticated, check out this picture, which I would say is the work of a man who had thought long and hard about Leger’s great painting The City. In 1996 he had a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a wonderful show that I reviewed for Time.

Like Cartier-Bresson, DeCarava had an eye for the off-kilter visual intricacies that a photograph can contain within its frame, so that even when he was working in a documentary vein, it was with an acute and unorthodox sense of spatial organization. I think one thing I said about him at the time of that MoMA show still stands:

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.

DeCarava was also very daring in his willingness to shoot people and things in deep, deep shadow, so that they emerge to the eye gradually from out of the darkness. As I mentioned in that review, he had a few pictures that made you think of Ad Reinhardt’s all-black paintings, the ones that appear at first to be a uniform field of black, but gradually reveal themselves to be a grid of large squares in minutely different shades of black.

Those very dark tones introduce an element of time into DeCarava’s pictures. It literally takes a while for your eyes to adjust enough to see what’s going on. And of course the shadows work as a metaphor for the relative invisibility of blacks in American society in the mid 20th-century, when DeCarava did his greatest work. But they also suggest what you might call an epistemology, a philosophy of knowledge. This is what I was I was getting at with something else I said in that MoMA review:

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.