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  • “Illusion Complete within Itself”: Roy Decarava’s Photography
  • Maren Stange (bio)

Coming of age in the 1940s, photographer Roy DeCarava saw that “black people in America were not viewed as worthy subject matter” for art but rather were usually “portrayed either in a superficial or a caricatured way or as a problem.”1 Undertaking a representation that was “serious,” “artistic,” and universally “human,”2 he wrote in regard to his first extended project, on the people of Harlem, that he wanted to achieve “a creative expression,” not a “documentary or sociological statement.”3 This spring, DeCarava’s work is the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) from January25 through May7, 1996, after which it will travel widely. Venues include the Art Institute of Chicago (June-September, 1996); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (November, 1996–January, 1997); the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover (February-May, 1997); the St. Louis Art Museum (June-August, 1997); the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (September- November, 1997); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (January-April, 1998); the High Museum of Art, Atlanta (June-September, 1998); and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (October, 1998–January, 1999). This homage offers an occasion at once to celebrate the artist’s achievement and to acknowledge that qualities taken to signify successful twentieth century art—such as esthetic autonomy, serious ambition, and thematic universality— are granted too rarely to images by, or of, African Americans.

DeCarava has been photographing now for forty-five years, primarily in New York City, where he was born in 1919 and still lives. He uses a small camera, develops and prints his own images painstakingly (sometimes working for years to get a satisfying effect), and has always relied on available light, even in cramped apartments and dim nightclubs, becoming a master of dark tones, not-quite-blacks that let viewers see into his shadows. From the beginning his style combined intimacy of tone with a dazzling formal vocabulary. Most strikingly in interiors—the portraits of saxophonist John Coltrane performing (fig. 1) or the still lifes “Coathanger” (1961) and “Ketchup Bottles, Table and Coat” (fig. 2)—light and dark values render plastic, expressive qualities, rather than offering literal records. In images such as the radically compressed “Force” [End Page 63] (1963) or buoyant “Haynes, Jones, and Benjamin” (1956), the picture frame serves to strengthen the composition’s overall structure; vantage points do not monumentalize or dramatize in ways made familiar by the work of an earlier generation’s documentary styles.4

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Figure 1.

Roy DeCarava — Coltrane on Soprano (1963). Collection of the DeCarava Archive, Copyright © 1996 Roy DeCarava.

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Figure 2.

Roy DeCarava — Ketchup Bottles, Table, and Coat). Collection of the DeCarava Archive, Copyright © 1996 Roy DeCarava.

Acknowledged since the 1960s as “the first to devote serious attention to the black aesthetic as it relates to photography and the black experience in [End Page 64] America,” DeCarava earned the accolade not only because his photographs eschewed journalistic cliches but also because their independent esthetic pointed the way toward a long desired condition of “spiritual freedom,” in critic Alain Locke’s words.5 Considering in what follows the contours of his career and the significance of his formal achievement, I will show both the terms and conditions of the autonomy he struggled for and the constraints and contradic tions such struggle inevitably engaged.6

Raised in Harlem by his mother who had immigrated from Jamaica, DeCarava studied painting and lithography for two years at the highly competi tive Cooper Union, leaving in search of a milieu more attuned to his concerns and situation as a black artist.7 He found it uptown, where, while supporting himself with Works Progress Administration (WPA) and commercial art work, he studied painting, drawing, and lithography at the Harlem Art Center and at the George Washington Carver School for several years in the mid-1940s. Thanks to the New Deal’s WPA and private efforts such as the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which, like the earlier Harmon Foundation, offered fellowships specifi cally for black artists, the 1940s were...

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