In 2002, I was just beginning my studies as a young art student majoring in photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1961, RISD, or “RIZ-dee,” as it is affectionately known, decided to establish a degree program in photography by hiring photographer Harry Callahan.(1) Just over fifty years later, I would be sitting in this program’s classrooms and standing in its darkrooms. My journey, like so many students during this period, was filled with the metaphorical wanderlust through our photographic history books. In these pages, one photographer always stuck with me: Roy DeCarava.
Roy DeCarava (1919–2009) is currently featured in two exhibitions in Los Angeles this summer at The Underground Museum in Roy DeCarava: The Work of Art (through June 30, 2019) and Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at The Broad (through September 1, 2019). One aspect of Roy DeCarava is described incredibly aptly by The Underground Museum’s beginning wall text:
“We invite you to slow down this pace as you move through our galleries. Take your time with these photographs.”(2)
And so I did, I slowed down and looked. What I found is DeCarava’s mastery of artistic technique as well as sociocultural critique. For in every waveless moment in his images, is a quick-paced story. DeCarava’s work is a statement:
“He used his camera to produce striking studies of everyday black life in Harlem, capturing the varied textures of the neighborhood and the creative efflorescence of the Harlem Renaissance.”(3)
As a photographer prolific in the ’40s and ’50s, DeCarava presents everyday black life as well as individuals who were celebrated for their artistic and activist lives. In one photograph at The Underground Museum, we see Billie Holiday’s face strain in the ecstasy of a song, her earrings catching the lowlight of the space, while in another image at The Broad we see his characteristic printing style in an image of an African-American woman with a gleaming NAACP pin. See, one element of DeCarava’s work that is indescribable, that slows down the viewer, is the mastery of his craft in the darkroom. Known for only using existing light, instead of, say, Weegee and “his use of the blinding, close-up flash, ” DeCarava could photograph New York’s city streets without the burden of equipment.(4)
Nowadays, it’s easy to make a quick iPhone image with high-powered flash just like Weegee. But DeCarava? Dawoud Bey, a photographer whose work is also featured next to DeCarava’s images in Soul of a Nation, said it best:
“DeCarava printed very dark, making photographs of black subjects that were often enveloped in a lush and seductive blackness. . . . He wanted that black to be a thing of beauty, both the subjects and the photographs themselves.”(5)
As a young photography student, DeCarava’s work was the gold standard for darkroom printing techniques among my professors, impossibly difficult to replicate and gorgeously out of reach. In some way, my slow-looking at these two shows this summer was my chance to revisit my days in the darkroom, and imagine DeCarava in the safelight glow watching each image gradually come into focus.