Roy DeCarava, 89

Roy DeCarava, 89; Celebrated N.Y. photographer

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

Roy DeCarava, 89, whose intimate, often melancholy black-and-white images of Harlem life made him one of the most respected photographers of his century, died Oct. 27 in New York. His family declined to provide the cause of death.

Mr. DeCarava spent most of his career working near his birthplace in Harlem as he focused his cameras on lonely children, tired workers, expressive jazz musicians and bleak street corners. He collaborated with poet Langston Hughes on a highly praised book, "Sweet Flypaper of Life," in 1955 and received early encouragement from Edward Steichen, one of the formative figures of photography as an art form.

Mr. DeCarava (pronounced dee-cuh-RAH-vuh) chose African American life as his subject and photographed many high-profile black artists, including Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Yet he fought against being stereotyped as a "black artist," once going so far as to withdraw his works from an exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even so, he and Gordon Parks, with whom he had a long dispute, are often considered the foremost African American photographers of the 20th century.

His fellow photographers long recognized the eloquence of Mr. DeCarava's work, but he didn't gain broad public acclaim until a 1996 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The 200 photographs in that exhibition, which traveled to Washington and other cities, presented a world unto itself as Mr. DeCarava portrayed children with unnaturally aged faces, couples dancing in kitchens and sweat-stained men trudging home from work.

Deep shadows often welled up in his photographs, creating stark contrasts of black and white that seemed to echo the society he depicted. In his 1949 image, "Graduation," a young woman in a white gown stands alone in bright sunlight, looking out on a garbage-strewn street shrouded in shadows.

"His most enduring pictures dare you to see in the dark," critic Richard Lacayo wrote in Time magazine. "They're so heavily shadowed that your eyes have to adjust to the carbon-tone depths."

Mr. DeCarava supported himself as a freelance photographer for magazines, but he consciously approached photography as an art, not as a form of journalism or documentary history.

"I always wanted more than information, more than, 'This is the way this looks,' " he told the Baltimore Sun in 1998. "I always wanted an emotional content or ambiguity that allowed people to explore what they were experiencing."

He was trained as a painter and printmaker, and his photographs often had the composition and gravity of painting. The first photograph he made that satisfied his artistic aims, Mr. DeCarava said, was a 1953 shot of a simple apartment building hallway ending in a closed door. As in so many of his pictures, the lights are never bright enough.

"I didn't know what I wanted to paint, but photography told me right away," he said in a 1986 interview with The Washington Post. "I was very shy, scared to death of people, and somehow the camera gave me a license, a way of relating to people."

Mr. DeCarava, an amateur saxophonist, often photographed jazz musicians in their homes and nightclubs. He captured Louis Armstrong hurrying along a street, Billie Holiday sitting beside a piano, Elvin Jones sweating at the drums and John Coltrane lost in concentration in the midst of a saxophone solo. A book of his jazz photographs, "The Sound I Saw," was conceived in the 1960s but not published until 2001.

"I'm fascinated by jazz and jazz musicians, and that always means a dark room somewhere," he told The Post in 1986. "I try to capture the performer's intensity, the concentration. It's so beautiful to see. . . . It's an expression of love."

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