Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) Innovation and Artistry

Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) became one of the most important American photographers of  his generation by chronicling the lives of Harlem's ordinary people and its jazz giants. He was regarded as the founder of a school of African-American photography that broke with the social documentary traditions of his time.  He felt that his pictures would speak louder as a record of black life in America if they abandoned the overtly humanist aims of the documentary or sociological statements of the times. 

The artistic and technical innovations of Roy DeCarava are presented in a recent article in the New York Times written by Teju Cole.
DeCarava, a lifelong New Yorker, came of age in the generation after the 
Harlem Renaissance and took part in a flowering in the visual arts that followed the largely literary movement. By the time he died in 2009, at 89, he was celebrated for his melancholy and understated scenes, most of which were shot in New York City: streets, subways, jazz clubs, the interiors of houses, the people who lived in them. His pictures all share a visual grammar of decorous mystery: a woman in a bridal gown in the empty valley of a lot, a pair of silhouetted dancers reading each other’s bodies in a cavernous hall, a solitary hand and its cuff-linked wrist emerging from the midday gloom of a taxi window. DeCarava took photographs of white people tenderly but seldom. Black life was his greater love and steadier commitment. With his camera he tried to think through the peculiar challenge of shooting black subjects at a time when black appearance, in both senses (the way black people looked and the very presence of black people), was under question. 
All technology arises out of specific social circumstances. In our time, as in previous generations, cameras and the mechanical tools of photography have rarely made it easy to photograph black skin. The dynamic range of film emulsions, for example, were generally calibrated for white skin and had limited sensitivity to brown, red or yellow skin tones. Light meters had similar limitations, with a tendency to underexpose dark skin. And for many years, beginning in the mid- 1940s, the smaller film-developing units manufactured by Kodak came with Shirley cards, so-named after the white model who was featured on them and whose whiteness was marked on the cards as “normal.” Some of these instruments improved with time. In the age of digital photography, for instance, Shirley cards are hardly used anymore. But even now, there are reminders that photographic technology is neither value-free nor ethnically neutral. In 2009, the face- recognition technology on HP webcams had difficulty recognizing black faces, suggesting, again, that the process of calibration had favored lighter skin."
See the link below to access the full article and see the inspiring works of this great man.

More photographs by Roy DeCarava

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