Roy DeCarava: In Time - Jenkins Johnson Gallery, NYC


decarava.jpgWhy is Roy DeCarava not more well known? He shot his way into photographic history in the late 1940s, had his work shown in the landmark Family of Man exhibition at the MoMA in 1950, and, in 1952, became the first black American photographer to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.

In 1955 he collaborated with Langston Hughes on the award-winning bestseller The Sweet Flypaper of Life, has had three significant monographs published since then, and was the subject of a major MoMA retrospective a decade ago. And yet, why is a significant number of the image-loving public unaware of him?

We now have less reason to lament, thanks to “In Time,” the new exhibit of 96 black-and-white DeCarava prints at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery. The exhibit spans a half-century, but the majority of the photographs are from the 1950s and 1960s, when DeCarava did his finest work. Most of these images have not been exhibited anywhere since the MoMA retrospective a decade ago, and some are rarely or never-before-seen. These images give witness to DeCarava’s humane vision, his tender portrayal of the depth and richness of the African American experience in New York — on the streets, in the jazz clubs, and along the byways of Harlem.

A roomful of 13 Billie Holiday photographs portraying her in rounded humanity offers glimpses of that fair lady often hidden from public view. Billie smiles mischievously. Billie laughs with one friend, reasons with another. Billie looks at us (or does she?) in contemplative repose. And, yes, she sings. The potency and tenderness of the images are in their shadows: deep grays which give up their secrets – their revelations – slowly. The drama is in what’s hidden, and the Billie that is framed within the shadows emerges as multifaceted, poised, and tender. While other photographers are content to display her in morose, gory detail, DeCarava’s empathetic eyes see a grand dame rather than a troubled addict.

In DeCarava’s hand – he prints all his photographs – the unseen illuminates the seen.

His photographs are almost impenetrably dark, giving them a mysterious stillness and inviting careful attention (yes, your nose will smudge a glass or two). But to say that the power of a DeCarava print lies in its shadows is misleading, for it’s the interplay between shadows and light that gives his photographs their visual life. This interplay creates ambiguity without vagueness, suffusing subjects with tension and psychological power. In “Elvin Jones,” 1961, the drummer’s anguished face is shrouded in darkness but specks of light draw attention to dripping sweat (and, improbably, the pattern on his pitch-dark tie), giving us A Portrait of the Artist as a Hard Worker.

Revelations unveiled in the shadow are DeCarava’s lingua franca, often accentuated by a geometric balance that imbues his prints with formal beauty as shape is put in rhythmic tension with movement. A lady descends a set of shadow-filled stairs; a man ascends another. A young graduate in a white dress strides, dignified, through a debris-strewn wasteland. Descending into uncertain shadows, her movement is hurried along by diagonals. (This poignant image of mid-century New York could very well be mistaken for New Orleans, circa 2006.)

“Haynes, Jones, Benjamin,” 1957, strikes a perfect visual balance between three musicians, a stage, and the surrounding architecture with the fluent use of diagonals. The lyrical poise of the musicians marching offstage after a gig has a formal beauty that reveals them as artists and laborers in equal measure. (A delight to see this exhibited, since it was printed incorrectly in DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw (2001)).

A wall of 16 John Coltrane prints give us a portrait of that incomparable figure, his searching intensity personified. DeCarava captures a rear-profile of Coltrane in “Walking with Tenor,” 1964 — a shot of his giant stride with instruments in hand — making effective use of juxtaposed diagonals, harmonizing angles to lend balance, proportion, and elegance. We are privy to both the working conditions and human condition of the musician as we witness his worn shoes and purposeful stride – yet we do not see his face, or even his head. Giant Steps, indeed. Another visual synecdoche, “Coltrane Resting with Tenor,” 1964, portrays the man and his horn as dignity and mystery unified and resists the valorization, nostalgia, and sentimentality typical of photographs of this icon.

This resistance is key. DeCarava humanizes icons rather than enshrining them, giving us intimate close-ups of Mahalia Jackson, Ornette Coleman, Count Basie and Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Romare Bearden, and Langston Hughes. Rarely have their inner lives seemed so visually accessible, and surprisingly so; surprising because they almost never look into the camera, but draw us in by gazing beyond the frame. The objects of their contemplation become ours. DeCarava’s unobtrusive approach recalls Henri Cartier-Bresson’s comment, “The viewer shouldn’t think to himself, the photographer was there. You have to catch the guy when he’s inside himself. A portrait consists in sneaking the camera between the subject’s shirt and his skin, without doing any harm.”

A few nature shots and abstract studies are scattered throughout, and seem out of place. Less convincing, they give up their secrets too easily, and lack the understated, quiet, and attractively dark quality of, say, his photographs of jazz musicians. The same goes for his later photographs (which are also few) — not enough mystery in the details.

The absence of DeCarava from standard photography histories and criticism is, at best, careless neglect, and, at worst, malicious omission. It doesn’t help matters that he severely limits the reproduction and display of his images. Yet, he deserves a wider audience, with this current exhibition a reminder – a testimony, really – of why people photograph in the first place.

Let’s bear witness while we can. - Garnette Cadogan

In Time
Jenkins Johnson Gallery
521 W. 26th Street
Through March 11th

Mr. Cadogan is a writer living in Bronx, New York. He’s currently editing books on the globalization of reggae, and on New Orleans jazz. During his spare time, he reads Peanuts; Charlie Brown is his hero.