The saga of the Africans in the Americas—black history—is one of the great stories of the Western world, central to what the United States has been, and what it is now, and one of our most complex and enduring dramas. That story's greatest visual poet in the 20th century was Roy DeCarava, who has just passed, at the age of 89. He was in my opinion one of America's greatest photographers.
He was a black radical to his essence, often bitter out of proportion to his own success and importance, but in his art he was infinitely generous, almost tender, quietly creating an extended lyrical portrait of a people he felt were being ignored and undocumented.
Photography can't show the universal except in the specific, and he found his subject in life in Harlem, often centering around music. His pictures are free of cant and advocacy; they aren't political, they aren't pressed into the service of a message. He gives to his subjects what he always wanted for himself and his work: respect, regard, acceptance.
Like many black and white photographer artists, Mr. DeCarava* created his own tonal palette for his photographs. He chose to print with extremely low contrast and so dark that details often barely emerged from blackness, in what I have always felt was a sort of visual allegory for his feelings about race, pushing both effects past what many observers could accept. So much so that both book publishers and now online sources have chosen to "fix" his intentions for his work by making his pictures more conventionally contrasty, and lightened. The Times' Lens blog has failed in this respect—their presentation of his pictures yesterday accompanying his obituary misrepresents the work.
Peter Galassi's retrospective, an indisputably great book and one of the finest volumes in my collection (it completely captures me every single time I look through it), treads the edge of this tendency with perfect adroitness, adding just a little of the air of lightness and just a little extra contrast, preserving the feel of Mr. DeCarava's prints while making them easier both to look at and to see.
Roy DeCarava, from Budd Mishkin's NY1 interview
I've long felt that photography—indeed, all art—is partly a matter of personal chemistry, in the same mysterious way that romantic chemistry works. Some work speaks to you and touches you in ways that are visceral and emotional, not just formal and intellectual. Some work matters in ways that obliterates all the noise and haste of rank and disputation and competing claims, and of dense artspeak. I just love Roy DeCarava's work, just love it, and often return to it. It's made me happy that he reached contentment in his old age; he always knew the significance of the great monolith of his life's accomplishment. Tonight I'll put on some of the of the music he loved (Ben Webster's Soulville, maybe, and, naturally, Coltrane) and look through one of my treasured books of his, sending this artist all praise and humble thanks.
*My policy has long been to refer to everyone by their first names here, under the premise—overly hopeful though it may be—that we are all not only equals but friends in our shared passion for photographs and photography. (A few older, established photographers and éminences grise have indeed objected.) But for some reason I cannot do that with Mr. DeCarava, especially now—he always demanded respect, and was prickly about even its cursory forms. I don't think he would appreciate my calling him by his given name at any time, and especially on this occasion.
Featured Comment by Aaron: "Terry Gross of Fresh Air replayed a great interview with Roy DeCarava today: well worth the listen on npr.org."