Roy DeCarava famously turned Harlem into his canvas, but there is much more to see — and feel — in his new retrospective.
One of the best exhibitions of the season is devoted to the work of the great postwar photographer Roy DeCarava. Split between the uptown and downtown galleries of David Zwirner, it was organized on the centennial of the artist’s birth by his widow, Sherry Turner DeCarava, an art historian.
At Zwirner on the Upper East Side, “The Sound I Saw” concentrates on DeCarava’s photographs of musical subjects. At Zwirner in Chelsea, the much larger “Light Break” treats the full range of his interests, from the civil rights movement to images of urban workers, landscapes and parks. Totaling nearly 150 photographs, this is a museum-worthy undertaking seen in the more accessible, intimate spaces of the commercial gallery — the best of both worlds.
DeCarava’s work is itself the best of both worlds: visually rigorous yet incalculably sensitive to the human predicament and the psychology of everyday life, especially concerning but not limited to African-Americans. He studied painting and printmaking, before committing to the camera, which may have helped him enrich his new medium in terms of both appearance and meaning. DeCarava’s reputation began to grow in the early 1950s, based on his sympathetic portrayals of the residents of Harlem, where he was born in 1919 and raised by a single mother, and of the numerous musical luminaries pursuing blues or jazz, this country’s first modern art. These included Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, who figure in the uptown show.
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DeCarava, who died in 2009, tilted black and white photography away from social documentary toward aesthetic and personal expression. But he also intended to battle the problem, as he described it, of black people “not being portrayed in a serious and artistic way.” He did this with elegant vengeance favoring formal power over narrative while stinting neither on his subjects’ dignity, nor on the harsh realities that many faced. Looking at many of his images we cannot help being aware of what is today called systemic racism, but there is so much more to see, and feel.
Roy DeCarava’s “Four Bassists,” from 1965.Estate of Roy DeCarava; via David Zwirner
“Graduation”(1949), one of DeCarava’s most famous images.Estate of Roy DeCarava; via David Zwirner
DeCarava’s “Pepsi,” from 1964.Estate of Roy DeCarava; via David Zwirner
Sometimes his subjects seem simply to rise above these hardships, like the young woman in “Graduation,” one of his best known images; wearing a white gown, she seems to float majestically along a sidewalk flanked by an empty lot and a pile of trash. Sometimes obstacles are reflected, as in the grave determination on the face of a young freedom marcher in Washington in 1963. And at times they are described with throat-catching beauty and disturbing ambiguity, as in the man in “Pepsi,” who extends his arms and upper torso to lift a case of the soft drink.
Blackness was the overarching theme of DeCarava’s art — his form, his content and the subject matter (the stories his images tell) all in one. His images constantly emphasize the beauty of black people, artists and culture. But first there is the striking darkness of his photographs as objects, regardless of subject, which he achieved by using innovative printing techniques.
DeCarava’s work encompasses an extraordinary range of shadowy tonalities, from deep charcoal to pale haze. Illuminated by exquisitely spare uses of light or contrasting blocks of relative brightness, his photographs are at once alluring, mysterious and challenging. At close range, they reveal layered meanings that are variously psychological, social, cultural, even structural. The richness and diversity of dark tones enact the deep content of DeCarava’s art; they constantly flip between visual fact and a metaphor for difference of all kinds.
The first image of the downtown show, “Wall Street, Morning” of 1960 demonstrates a tonal complexity commensurate with DeCarava’s exceptional printing skills. A narrow wedge of sky driven between seemingly opaque buildings casts the fernlike curl of a streetlight in stark silhouette. Below, an astounding panoply of deep soft grays emerges from the shadows: building facades, sidewalks, pavement. It is a tour de force in all senses.
Sometimes it took many failures in the darkroom before DeCarava developed an acceptable print. This was the case with “Light and Shade,” an aerial view of a playground featuring two boys clutching toy pistols in a game of cowboys, although it may take a moment to make out the second child barely visible in the shadows.
In “Progressive Labor” (1964) DeCarava acknowledges racial violence, but indirectly. Next to the drastically truncated sign for the Progressive Labor Party’s offices at the left of the image (it reads “ressive/BOR”) is a poster whose cartoonish vitality depicts several policemen, each attacking a child with a billy club. On the sidewalk below, another drama unfolds. A white man who wears some kind of badge glares as people walk past a storefront whose iron gate is viciously bent.
Sometimes the differences captured by DeCarava concern class more than race. In “Man Lying on Park Bench, Bangkok” (1987), which could be from any place in the world, DeCarava shot across a narrow body of water. He captures a summery scene bathed in light: a lavish white dwelling perched over the water and the matching silhouettes of a man and a woman in a boat idling nearby. But this vignette is framed and enhanced by a darker one on the nearer bank, where DeCarava stood. Its shadowy silhouettes include the ground, a tree and a man who seems to be sleeping on a stony bench. He is outside the summer idyll, yet his presence and its odalisque-like grace is essential to the ambiguous beauty that distinguishes DeCarava’s art.
Roy DeCarava: The Sound I Saw
Through Oct. 26 at David Zwirner, 34 East 69th Street, Manhattan; davidzwirner.com.
Roy DeCarava: Light Break
Through Oct. 26 at David Zwirner, 533 West 19th Street, Manhattan; davidzwirner.com.
Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic, regularly reviews museum exhibitions, art fairs and gallery shows in New York, North America and abroad. Her special areas of interest include ceramics textiles, folk and outsider art, design and video art. @robertasmithnyt
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