Photographer Roy DeCarava was an African-American genius of the lens. His use of shadows and darkness in his photos became his staple. His famous shots of Harlem Renaissance jazz musicians has come to be known in prominent museums throughout New York City including the Museum of Modern Art. From 1968-1975, his work was found in the magazine pages of Look, Newsweek, Life and Sports Illustrated.
His mother, an amateur photographer, first exposed DeCarava to photography. He worked as a shoe shine boy and delivered newspapers to help support his family. With a talented eye, the young student was awarded a scholarship at the Cooper Union School of Art. He was discouraged by the amount of discrimination he received from the white students and transferred to the Harlem Community Art Center.
Roy DeCarava was known to shoot something as simple as a subway station or apartment and turn it into a work of art. His photos have captured stills like Billie Holliday relaxing by the piano in a friend’s home, or Miles Davis standing on a small stage, stooped over his trumpet. Even Duke Ellington, dressed in white tie, smiling at the camera while on break in a recording studio. Using his small, 35-millimeter camera, DeCarava shot in black and white impressionism, and printed the photos in smooth shades of black and gray.
Watch video of DeCarava below.
In 1952, DeCarava became the first black photographer to receive the Guggenheim fellowship grant for $3,200. In a 1996 interview, DeCarava told press “there were no black images of dignity, no images of beautiful black people.There was this big hole. I tried to fill it.”
The photos of DeCarava can currently be seen in his publications, “The Sweet Flypaper of Life” (1955), with text by Langston Hughes and “The Sound I Saw, Improvisation on a Jazz Theme,” (1964).
Decarava died in 2009 at age 89.