Issue #165  11/2/2009
Photographer Roy Decarava Dies At 89 in New York City

Roy DeCarava, a powerful and independent voice for African-American photography, passed away on October 27th in Manhattan. He had been living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and was just two months shy of his 90th birthday.

DeCarava was born in Harlem on December 9, 1919 to Elfreda Ferguson, a Jamaican immigrant, who separated from his father Andrew DeCarava shortly after his birth. An only child, he attended New York City's Textile High School both at the school's Harlem annex and at the main school on 18th Street in Manhattan. After high school in 1938 he worked as a sign painter with the Works Project Administration to help pay the bills. With the help of a scholarship, he studied architecture and sculpture at the Cooper Union from1938-40, and then painting and printmaking at the Harlem Art Center from 1940-42 and drawing and painting at George Washington Carver Art School from 1944-45. He considered himself first and foremost an artist, and this emphasis carried over later into his photography.

After a stint in WWII as an army topographical draftsman and getting a medical leave, DeCarava came back to Harlem, earning a living by working as a commercial artist and illustrator, but also exhibiting his first silkscreen prints at a New York gallery in 1947.

DeCarava began to photograph Harlem's environs in 1946 at first to reproduce street imagery that he wanted to paint. But he quickly became so involved in the photography and Harlem's street life that he soon abandoned painting, sculpture and printmaking altogether.

His first photography exhibit was held at the Forty-Fourth Street Gallery in 1950. The gallery's owner, a fellow photographer, taught DeCarava about darkroom technique.

DeCarava later met with Edward Steichen, then curator of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art. It was Steichen who suggested that DeCarava apply for a Guggenheim fellowship, and in 1952, he became the first African-American photographer ever to win one and the $3,200 grant that was to give him the freedom of photographing Harlem. In his application, he wrote that he hoped "to show the strength, the wisdom, the dignity of the Negro people. Not the famous and the well known, but the unknown and the unnamed, thus revealing the roots from which spring the greatness of all human beings." The images that resulted from this work were published in the 1955 book "The Sweet Flypaper of Life" with text by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.

Steichen would later include several of DeCarava's Harlem images in the landmark exhibition and book, "The Family of Man".

Besides his images of everyday life in Harlem, DeCarava perhaps became even better known for his photographs of many Jazz greats, such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis.

DeCarava was not without his controversies though. Subject to racial discrimination most of his life, DeCarava worked actively for the civil rights movement, not only photographing such events, but also as an active participant. He chaired the American Society of Magazine Photographers' Committee to End Discrimination Against Black Photographers. In that position, he became a leader in many rights efforts, such as the protest against Life magazine which demanded that the publication add black photographers to its staff. Gordon Parks, the only black photographer at Life during that time in the 1960s, refused to join the protest, and apparently DeCarava never forgave him.

DeCarava's first important solo museum exhibition did not come until 1969 when the Studio Museum in Harlem showed his photography. In 1996 New York's Museum of Modern Art honored him with a major retrospective and the nearly 200-image show toured several U.S. cities. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2006 for his work.