It was the biggest cowboy they'd ever seen on 105th Street. It stretched from curb to curb: a giant, mythic figure with the 10-gallon hat and the chaps and the jut-chinned face set in profile. It made Roy DeCarava famous all over his Harlem neighborhood.
He was 8 years old.
"I was the best cowboy artist on the block," the photographer recalls. "I made a lot of them. Sometimes we had chalk, sometimes just plaster of Paris we found in the street."
DeCarava was raised in Harlem, "the poorest of the poor," an only child. He never knew his father, but his mother was determined he would be somebody. She bought him a violin when he was 5, "and a suit to go with it, cost her four paychecks, a Fauntleroy suit with black velvet short pants and a vest and a white silk shirt with a wide collar, and man, when I had to go down the street to my lessons with that violin case, I ran as fast as I knew how."
Today one of America's most respected photographers, and a professor at Hunter College, DeCarava was the first black to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in photography. Last week he lectured the national convention of the Society for Photographic Education in Baltimore. His work is in major museums in New York, Chicago and Washington and in any number of collections as well as his own three books.
But the one that makes people's eyes light up, all kinds of people all over the world, people just learning to read and people who have almost forgotten how, people who would smile and shrug if you told them they were looking at art photography, is a little book called "The Sweet Flypaper of Life" that he made with the late Langston Hughes.
It has just been reissued by Howard University Press, an elegant hardback with big slick pages. A beautiful book.
Maybe even as beautiful as the little tan paperback that came out in 1955 and cost $1.95.
It is mostly pictures, with a running commentary by one of the main characters, but underneath you always hear the unmistakable voice, the warmth of Hughes himself.
"When the bicycle of the Lord bearing His messenger with a telegram for Sister Mary Bradley saying 'Come home' arrived at 113 West 134th Street, New York City, Sister Bradley said, 'Boy, take that wire right on back to St. Peter because I am not prepared to go. I might be a little sick, but as yet I ain't no ways tired . . . ' " and she takes over the narration from there, talking about her children and grandchildren, neighbors and strangers and the janitor who gives her those looks and makes her wonder if she's too old to get married again . . . while the pictures flow alongside, making music with the words.
"And then there's Rodney. Now you take Rodney: . . . " and we see Rodney, young and streetwise and cool, with his bow tie, his raincoat, his dapper snap-brim. "That Rodney! The street's done got Rodney! How his father and his mother can wash their hands of Rodney, I do not know, when he is the spitting image of them both." Then we see the parents, laughing, embracing. "But they done put him out, so's they can keep on good-timing themselves, I reckon . . . "
Chattily, Sister Bradley introduces a whole community of her relations and friends, "like Ellen's mother who really takes care of her house. And my middle boy is well married, to a girl who is a real pretty typewriter. And my middle daughter ain't been divorced but once and she laughs about that -- so I reckon it didn't hurt her none . . ."
And we see them there on the pages, the young people and old, going to work, trying on clothes, walking through the streets and the vacant lots of Harlem, drinking beer, laughing together, holding babies on their laps . . . "and that baby is spoilt -- but never cries, except when it's not setting on a lap . . . "; people sitting on front stoops, in doorways, on park benches, in the subway, shoveling coal, getting dolled up for a party, hanging out: "music-making people . . . and picture-painting people . . . and theater-acting people . . . and subway building people . . . and that sign painter that works right down in our basement."
It is a song, and people who read it seem to sense that they are part of it, whatever their color. That first edition -- a collector's item now -- was read to tatters by many a family that would never get within a thousand miles of Harlem.
The 20,000 copies sold out instantly, even though the publishers had never thought to target it in the black community or to push it with ads. "This is my family," readers reported, though many of them were white, " . . . I have a brother like that . . . "
It was republished in Czech, German, Chinese. The plates were thrown away, but still it refused to die, and a new edition came out in 1967. That's a collector's item too, now.
"It was Langston's idea," DeCarava says quietly. "I called him up -- in those days you could do that in Harlem, people didn't have all these entourages -- and he loved my pictures and said we should do a book. So I left him at least 500 pictures, and he made up a story around them."
Next thing DeCarava knew, the book was done. "I expected to see a big coffee table book with shiny paper, but he reaches in his back pocket and pulls out this little teeny book. 'That's it?' 'Yeah, that's it, it's marvelous.' I was thoroughly disappointed. Pictures were cropped, reduced practically to postage stamps. But later I realized it wasn't really about size."
Hughes had taken the huge miscellany of portraits and candids and mood shots and turned them into a narrative. "Even though it's fictional, it's 90 percent correct." Rodney was DeCarava's friend Graham, "an ex-Air Force pilot who was never allowed to fly because he was black, a bright man with nowhere to go, a sweet guy who was letting his life go to waste."
Sister Bradley herself, who appears on the final page of the book, was a stranger the photographer saw at a street fair. "Take my picture," she told him, and he did, and there she is in her wide-brimmed Sunday hat and black dress and brooch and hoop earrings, capable, veined hands and the steady, aware look of someone who has seen a lot of living but "done got my feet caught in the sweet flypaper of life -- and I'll be dogged if I want to get loose."
You see some of these pictures in DeCarava's other books, or on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan, or the Chicago Art Institute, and they look different, more serious, perhaps.
Most of them are dark.
"I have no philosophy about it," he says. "I'm always working in inadequate light. I'm fascinated by jazz and jazz musicians, and that always means a dark room somewhere. I try to capture the performer's intensity, the concentration. It's so beautiful to see. It's like watching anyone do something, a baby trying to stand up: that intense dedication, oblivious. It's an expression of love. I try to suggest it in the pictures.
"I love the nuances in the dark image. It's not blackness I'm seeking but a quality of light. The open dark. A sense of something there. It's not solid black, it's not the conventional velvety black most photographers want. It's air. Space."
A saxophonist's forehead gleams with sweat. A man's face emerges from deep darkness as you stare, then another, then another. You have to look harder at Roy DeCarava's pictures, just as you have to listen harder to his soft tenor voice.
"So much stuff is assaulting you today," he says. "Bombarding you. The ads. TV. And that's the innocuous stuff. There's much worse: the distortions that tend to warp your perceptions of the world. You accept these distortions, you take lies for granted. There was a time when we demanded the truth from each other."
He is 66, and he mourns the days of his youth, when "my mother could leave me in the street all day and nothing would happen. Go into another neighborhood, Irish or Jewish, and you might get beat up, but no knifings or shootings. The worst thing you saw was a drunk."
There were seasons then, marble season, checker season, seasons for kites and tops and scooters made of roller skates and orange crates, and model planes you built from strips of balsa wood and tissue paper that you dampened so it would fit tight. One day some kid would turn up on the block with whatever it was, and the next day everybody had one.
"I could make all kinds of things. A one-tube superheterodyne radio. Make a ring out of a peach pit. Dry it and scrape it on the sidewalk, bore a hole in it and flatten the top and you got a ring. And some skinned knuckles. I was always using my hands to build things. What do they do now? It's all fed to them. The plane models are these plastic things you just stick together. Everything's canned."
When he wanted to be a painter and got into Cooper Union on raw talent ("I didn't even know what art was, I used to copy the ads in magazines"), he mixed his own pigments, prepared his own canvases. When he discovered photography he made his own enlarger from a coffee can and some condensers he bought in a hardware store.
After two years of being the only black at Cooper Union, he moved up to the Harlem Art Center, where he learned art techniques and met muralist Charles White who showed him that an artist could literally change people's lives with images.
Working 9-to-5 painting displays for a Brooklyn movie theater ("I always worked: sold papers, shined shoes, hauled potato bags upstairs"), he didn't have time to sketch, so he took to making snapshots. Immediately, he found that photographs spoke to him in a way that painting never had.
"I was very shy, scared to death of people, and somehow the camera gave me a license, a way of relating to people. They weren't suspicious or paranoid in those days, they didn't ask what I was taking it for, was I going to make money off them or what. They were flattered. I didn't know what I wanted to paint, but photography told me right away."
He started in photography in earnest in 1947 and had a show a few years later. Someone told Edward Steichen, then the photography curator at MOMA, to go see it. Steichen was impressed enough to buy two pictures and said DeCarava should have a Guggenheim.
"I didn't really know who Steichen was," he recalls, shaking his head. "I remember thinking he had a wonderful sense of humanity."
He got the Guggenheim in 1952. Some of his work appeared in Steichen's celebrated "The Family of Man" exhibit and book. He freelanced until 1975, when he began teaching at Hunter.
"When I was coming up," he says, "our elders would say it wasn't like it used to be, and now I find myself saying the same thing. But I really think it's different with this generation. We had a belief system, we knew good and bad, and we didn't talk back to grown-ups. Today the world is smaller and kids see a lot of things they're not prepared to see. You see a guy shot in Vietnam. You see Oswald gunned down on TV. What do you tell a kid about human life? These are the issues I try to deal with in my work. I don't think art can be separated from life."
He and his wife Sherry, an art historian, have three daughters. They live in Brooklyn.
"Color? I do color for my in-laws. They want pictures of the kids. It's not for me. It gets in the way. The picture is all there, all done for you. It doesn't allow you to interpret."
You have to look harder at a Roy DeCarava photograph. He's not going to hit you over the head with it. You have to do some work yourself. You have to decide what it means, what it means to you, and maybe that's why you feel that you're part of the song.