Roy DeCarava, Photographer 1919-2009
Roy DeCarava was born in Harlem in December of 1919, and lived there through many decades of important changes to the neighborhood. In DeCarava’s youth, Harlem was cultivating its reputation as a flourishing African American neighborhood, and he came of age during a time when many prominent black artists, musicians and writers were in their prime. He was close to poet Langston Hughes, and would later publish a book with him titled, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, which chronicled one woman’s life in Harlem.
DeCarava was raised by his single mother, and to earn money he began working at an early age. He continued to hold odd jobs throughout most of his career as a photographer. Through diligence and hard work, he secured admission to The Cooper Union, but left after two years to attend classes at the Harlem art center. Deciding early on that he wanted to be an artist, he began working as a painter and commercial illustrator, and many of his early photographs were meant only as reference for serigraph prints. He was drawn to photography by “the directness of the medium”, and he soon found himself communicating the themes and ideas of his paintings photographically.
While many of the great photojournalists of his time worked as outsiders, DeCarava’s status as a black Harlem resident afforded him a more personal view of his subjects. He operated as a street photographer at the same time as Garry Winogrand and Helen Levitt, but his work has a very different feel. Levitt and Winogrand kept a distance from the people they photographed, while DeCarava was exploring more intimate views of his subjects, even if they were strangers.
Roy DeCarava worked for a time as a journalist for Sports Illustrated magazine, but found it difficult to adjust his style and schedule to the constraints of commercial work. He did a series on the set of Requiem for a Heavyweight in 1962, which the director liked so much he bought nearly 200 prints. Despite his successes DeCarava felt very strongly about maintaining the artistic integrity of his images, and eventually gave up magazine and freelance work in order to take on a job teaching at Hunter College, where he is still a distinguished member of the faculty.
He is the subject of several books and many loving essays by his wife, Sherry.
Photos by Roy DeCarva
Bio Courtesy of Masters of Photography