Hunter College Professor Who Photographed the People of Harlem Dies at 89

Anthony Barboza

Mr. DeCarava said of the black people he documented: "It was unjust that they should go through life unseen."
November 08, 2009

When, as a budding photographer, Roy DeCarava applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952, his proposal stated: "I want to show the strength, the wisdom, the dignity of the Negro people. Not the famous and the well known, but the unknown and the unnamed, thus revealing the roots from which springs the greatness of all human beings."

That year he became the first African-American photographer to receive a Guggenheim, and he spent 57 more years advancing his goals. He was still pursuing them last month just before he died, six weeks shy of his 90th birthday.

Mr. DeCarava, one of the most celebrated of American photographers, taught photography at the City University of New York's Hunter College from 1975 until his death after a brief illness.

A distinguished professor of art at Hunter since 1988, Mr. DeCarava was acclaimed for his images of Harlem and of jazz musicians. He won the National Medal of Arts in 2006.

He drew most of his subject matter from everyday life in Harlem. As he told The Chronicle in 1997, his art reflected his sense of responsibility to black Americans: "It was unjust that they should go through life unseen."

On a Facebook page created in Mr. DeCarava's honor, former students have thanked him both for lessons in photography—for instance, his instruction that if you have to use a zoom lens, then you're not close enough to the scene to capture it—and for broader guidance. He taught, as one former student puts it, "that to shoot life, you have to live it."

In images that were as artistic as they were documentary, Mr. DeCarava depicted neighbors singing, workmen trudging home, and musicians playing, embracing, or merely walking from the stage. His subjects' purpose, perseverance, and elegance despite dire circumstances embodied "a life force that each of us has, a will to live and a will to be here," he said.

He found in their lives a radiance that, paradoxically, he captured in shadows and dark hues. Using hand-held cameras and only natural light, he transformed conditions that most photographers would consider obstacles into a personal aesthetic of light and life. His images, although often dim, glimmer redemptively.

In jazz masters and jazz journeymen, he saw spiritual transport and "human beings with all of the latitudes and grandeur and smallness that allowed them to create this music that we were all listening to." The Sound I Saw, a collection of his portraits of jazz artists, interspersed with his own poetry, appeared in 2001.

Mr. DeCarava grew up in Harlem, the only child of a single mother, a Jamaican immigrant. While a high-school student, he worked in the poster division of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. He won a scholarship to study at the prestigious Cooper Union, only to leave after two years due to racial hostility from the institution's virtually all-white student body. After a stint in the Army, he attended two Harlem art schools, and mingled in the area's thriving intellectual circles with such eminent painters as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Norman Lewis.

After first working as a painter, he began to concentrate on photography in his late 20s. It provided the tonalities he needed, he told The Chronicle: "It's just one seamless grain from black to white. And for me, the beauty, the distinctive quality of photography is this seamless movement from black to white."

In 1955, Edward Steichen, a champion of photography-as-art, presented three of Mr. DeCarava's prints in the Museum of Modern Art's landmark "Family of Man" exhibition.

The same year, Mr. DeCarava published The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a book of images accompanied by Langston Hughes's fictional portrait of a Harlem family.

Mr. DeCarava worked as a free-lance photographer for major media companies but said that it was not until Hunter College hired him that he was able to concentrate fully on his artistic output.

In 1996, MoMA mounted a retrospective of 190 of his images, which toured 10 cities over two years.

Fellow African-American photographers, such as the members of Kamoinge, a collective that he helped establish in Harlem in 1963, hailed him last month as a revered father figure. Similarly generous tributes have come from Hunter College colleagues and officials. Jeffrey Mongrain, a sculptor who has been a professor of art at Hunter College since 1995, said: "Roy taught as an artist more than as, say, a historian. He was an example of what he taught, and he taught what he loved. Students who studied with him understood they were enjoying the influence of his history as a creative individual. That was his great strength."

Mr. DeCarava, who compiled music of his favorite jazz greats—his taste was impeccable—and played them in the darkroom where his students worked, said in 1997 that teaching was one of his great joys: "I can't think of another way of making a living that's as rewarding."