November 2, 1996

Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective, LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
November 14, 1996 - January 26, 1997

The largest and most comprehensive survey ever devoted to the works of Roy DeCarava, one of the central figures in postwar American photography, opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on November 14, 1996. Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective spans DeCarava's oeuvre, from his groundbreaking pictures of everyday life in Harlem, through the civil rights protests of the early 1960s, to recent lyrical studies of nature. The exhibition includes a generous selection of Roy DeCarava's landmark photographs of jazz legends Billie Holiday, Milt Jackson, John Coltrane, and many others.

Born in New York City in 1919, DeCarava is known as one of the leading American photographers of his generation. Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective spans nearly half a century of the artist's work through some 200 black-and-white photographs made from the late 1940s through the mid-1990s. Presented in chronological order, the exhibition will also explore continuities of style and theme by juxtaposing works that span decades.

On the occasion of the exhibition, Roy DeCarava stated, "Images and the making of images have been and are still central to me as a person and to my growth as an artist. Photography is the best way I know of to express my concerns and my values. Exhibiting and publishing the work are ways of sharing and confirm my belief in the power of art to illuminate and transform our lives."

Tim Wride, LACMA's assistant curator of photography, said, "The museum is very committed to collecting and exhibiting photography, and this exhibition is important because it shows the broadest possible range of an artist's trajectory through his personal discovery of photography and what is photographic through his use of that medium to evoke the emotions and passions that are so much a part of his life."

Roy DeCarava's gentle, intimate pictures of domestic life in Harlem were first published in 1955 in The Sweet Flypaper of Life, with text by poet Langston Hughes. Roy DeCarava made many of the pictures after winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1951--the first awarded to an African-American photographer--which allowed him to spend a full year photographing daily life in Harlem. The pictures brought a new gentleness and intimacy to photography, creating an image of everyday experience that is at once tender and unsentimental.

Trained as a painter and printmaker, Roy DeCarava turned to photography in the late 1940s and quickly mastered the vocabulary of the small, hand-held camera, which was rapidly becoming the hallmark of advanced American work.

Organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the exhibition is arranged by recurrent theme and motif (as well as chronologically), and will include a number of pictures that have not been shown previously.

Exhibition Highlights In Man coming up subway stairs (1952), one of several subway pictures in the exhibition, an exhausted worker stands for all working men at the end of the day. Also exemplary of Roy DeCarava's metaphoric bent is Hallway (1953), in which an inhumanly narrow passage is described both as a haunting instance of "the economics of building for poor people" and as a thing of beauty.

In 1956 he embarked on an extensive series of jazz musicians. Many of the jazz pictures, such as Coltrane on soprano (1963), show individuals absorbed in the act of creation. Others, such as Billie Holiday and Hazel Scott at party (1957), are warm and affecting portraits. Together with photographs of Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Norman Lewis, and others, these portraits form an important body within Roy DeCarava's work.

In the early 1960s, Roy DeCarava's work grew more tough-minded in its response to racial discrimination, notably in pictures of laborers in New York's garment district and of civil rights protests. Mississippi freedom marcher, Washington, D.C. (1963), made at the historic March on Washington, exemplifies the photographer's instinct for isolating essential detail. Instead of attempting to encompass the vast event, Roy DeCarava's picture enters into the spirit of the March, distilling a collective determination and hope in the expression of a single face.

A life-long New Yorker, Roy DeCarava has tended to photograph close to home, making from his immediate environment the expansive world of his art. Within these parameters, his art has continued to evolve, as a group of pictures from the mid-1980s attests. Roy DeCarava's hand-camera style rejects artificial light as an intrusion upon experience and thus accepts deep shadow and blur as marks of authenticity. Beginning in 1985, Roy DeCarava elaborated this principle in pictures whose long exposures make the blur of motion an active stylistic device. In these photographs, the sensuousness that Roy DeCarava earlier had accorded to individual figures is transported to the overall field of the image.

LACMA coordinating curator: Tim B. Wride, assistant curator of photography.

Catalogue: Roy DeCarava: a Retrospective, by Peter Galassi, with an essay by Sherry Turner DeCarava; published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York; 280 pp., 237 photo reproductions; hardbound $60, softbound $29.95.

This exhibition, organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and its accompanying publication were supported by a grant from Metropolitan Life Foundation. Additional funding was provided by Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, and the National Endowment for the Arts.