Roy DeCarava, Light Break and Roy DeCarava, the sound I saw @David Zwirner

JTF (just the facts): A pair of simultaneously mounted exhibitions:

Light Break (on view at the 19th Street space here) consists of 100 black-and-white photographs, framed and matted in white and hung against white walls in a series of three spaces in the main western gallery as well as in a smaller room to the side. All of the prints are gelatin silver prints made between 1948 and 2006 and printed in the artist’s lifetime. No physical dimensions were provided.

the sound I saw (on view at the 69th Street space here) consists of 30 black-and-white photographs, framed and matted in white and hung on white walls on the second floor, in the north and south galleries as well as on the landing. Lines of poetic texts are printed on six of the walls and a recording of Kind of Blue (1959) by Miles Davis and his quintet plays in the background. All of the prints are gelatin silver prints dated between 1953 and 1965. The gallery states all examples are vintage but none are signed. Both exhibitions are organized by Sherry Turner DeCarava.

Light Break is accompanied by a catalog, published in 2019 by David Zwirner Books (here) and First Print Press (here), with a preface by Zoë Whitley and an essay by Ms. DeCarava (9 ¾ x 11 ½ in., 228 pages, 100 tritone reproductions, $60 hardcover.) (Cover shot below.)

(Installation shots for both shows below.)

Comments/Context: Describing his ambitions in an application for a 1952 Guggenheim Fellowship, photographer Roy DeCarava wrote: “I want to express that moment when a man going to work has meaning for that man and for me, not the fragment of the whole but the expression that sets it apart for all men going to work at that given moment, when that man ceases being one man and becomes all men.”

DeCarava went on to do in his career exactly what he had intended at the age of 32. Focusing his handheld camera on the particulars of what he experienced as an African-American in the second half of the 20th century, notably in the neighborhood of Harlem where he was born and lived most of his life, he translated his observations and feelings into truths about Everyman and Everywoman—the routine pleasures of daily life, and the epic racial struggle for self-respect and self-fulfillment. There was nothing esoteric or exclusionary about his aesthetic, which he slowly developed over the decade of the 1950s until it was distinctively his own. His photographs have an unmistakable lyrical timbre. The compositions are taut and muscular but paradoxically built from soft, movable blocks of expertly carved shadows. The darkness around people and things is often so enveloping that they risk being swallowed up and rendered void. That they weren’t is testament to his darkroom calibrations, notably his sure grasp of how far he could push the extremes of the gray scale, and to his understanding about what was modern about modern art. Spurning timely, hot-button, or melodramatic topics in favor of timeless, ordinary ones, he was nobody’s political tool. Among the wonders of his photographs is that they should be so full of affection for the world and yet so unsentimental about it.

The chief frustration for his admirers over the decades has been how seldom we have been able to see prints in substantial numbers and at regular intervals. Many galleries wanted to represent him long before his death in 2009, but none did for long. In 2003, Ariel Meyerowitz had a small exhibition of his then-recent work at her now defunct gallery. It was his first appearance in New York since 1990. I don’t recall others in this century.

These two concurrent shows at Zwirner are the most extensive in New York (and, I’m guessing, anywhere) since MoMA organized its traveling retrospective in 1996. Both gallery surveys were put together by his widow, the art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava, and both are exhilarating.

The 100 prints in Light Break offer a broad spectrum of his achievement. Many of these were at MoMA, such as the early Woman Walking (1950), a view from above and behind—either from a window or a front stoop—of a fashionably attired woman in her twenties or thirties walking down the street. It’s doubtful she is aware of the camera but it’s certain she is proud of her outfit and how well she wears it on her tall, lean body. DeCarava honors this regal sense of self, catching the moment when the drape of her coat is stretched like the jib of a sailboat along the length of her right leg. As she glides in high heels along the pavement, beside a sea of cobblestones, he gives this New York scene a Parisian air, stray branches of a tree in one corner of the frame adding a Japonisme touch.

Edna Smith, bassist (1950) was also in the retrospective and is the first plate in the Zwirner catalog. A half-length portrait of one of the few women jazz musicians in New York during the post-war era, it’s more characteristic of his radical printing style. She stands with eyes closed, in near total darkness, the only glints of light being reflections from the metal tuning keys of her upright instrument and from the metal band of her watch—appropriate for the player in a jazz ensemble who functions as timekeeper and who is always in the background, nearly invisible behind the soloist—a condition even more common for women.

Other pictures here were not at MoMA but certainly could have been. Garment worker, covered cart (1962) shows a man in silhouette, his right leg planted on the street, his bent shoulders levering the draped cart along a New York midtown street. American artists in the 1930s, some of them taking their cues from Socialist Realist artists in the Soviet Union, highlighted the rigorous and often miserably rewarded demands of manual labor, as political acts of solidarity with working people everywhere. DeCarava trained as a painter, and was a printmaker before he turned to photography. The fluent vocabulary of gestures that animate the working men and women in his street pictures—DeCarava took special pleasure in depicting the sinews and hollows of the back—is not unlike that found in the prints and paintings of Jacob Lawrence, Ben Shahn, and the Soyer brothers. DeCarava chose to restrict himself to the binary discipline of black-and-white photography. (He seems to have shot in color only when a magazine assignment required it.)

Seeing prints that chronicle more than 50 years of work is to be reminded both of his versatility and of a strict limits he set for himself. He found involving things to photograph at every distance—close, middle, far—and could be as engaged by a smoking pile of debris in the street (1995) as by a pair of men on a stroll around the park (1959). Along the walls of the East Gallery, Ms. DeCarava has grouped photographs of couples—walking casually hand-in-hand on Park Ave., draped over one another along a railing, or seated in separate units of two on a wall while looking out at a lake. As he was less concerned with the drama of their interior lives than by the unpredictable geometries of two bodies together, none of these are sappy pictures.

Roughly a dozen DeCarava photographs have become reproduced so prominently that they are iconic: Graduation (1949), Woman and children at intersection (1952), Sun and Shade (1952), David (1952), White glove and cigarette (1952), Hallway, 1953), Man with Portfolio (1959), Coltrane and Elvin (1960), Ornette Coleman (1960), Bill and son (1962), Coltrane on soprano (1963), Mississippi Freedom Marcher (1963), and Man sleeping in corrugated carton (1987). All of them are here.

Examples from his later years, done after the MoMA retrospective, prove that his eye did not fail him as he aged. Oval Doorway (1999), a pane of glass on a brownstone’s front door clouded white like an evil eye, carries the imprint of Surrealism. A curiosity here is one of the few group portraits I’ve seen by DeCarava: children, parents, and administrators at a public school entrance in New York from 1978. The dynamics of crowds don’t seem to have intrigued him. A lone wolf, he was more attracted by other solitary actors.

Modern jazz was his other artistic passion. He was a regular at New York clubs and the Newport Jazz Festival, becoming friends with a number of its major players. The self-possession of Miles Davis, with his aloof stylishness and quasi-contemptuous attitude toward his audience, held an irresistible allure for black artists dealing with the realities of America in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Born and raised in Harlem, DeCarava did not leave it for an extended period of time until drafted in the U.S. Army in 1942. His experiences in the Jim Crow South scarred him for life. He left the service with a medical discharge. “The only place that wasn’t segregated in the army was the psychiatric hospital,” he once wrote. “I was there for about a month. I was in the army for about six or seven months altogether but I had nightmares about it for twenty years.”

Photographers and jazz musicians have numerous affinities. Since the ’50s both have existed on the margins of American life. Treated as minority art forms, they’ve earned intellectual respect while suffering from popular neglect. To some extent, this condition has been self-inflicted, even invited. Like Miles Davis, DeCarava was not about to court mainstream approval. He took some fine portraits of Miles but his series on Coltrane—soloing on tenor as well as frenetically on soprano, hugging Ben Webster, and in a moment of contemplative calm, his drummer Elvin Jones a blur behind him—represent the photographer at his peak as a performer himself. A separate portrait of Jones atop his kit, his charcoal-dark face a thundercloud of sweat, is another masterpiece. (The Sound I Saw is the title of a collection of his jazz portraits, published by Phaidon in 2001, from which this exhibition draws its name and contents.)

How and why DeCarava developed his smoky, tenebrous palette deserves more exegesis from art historians, and it doesn’t receive any in the catalog essay here. His darkroom techniques and recipes remain a mystery. Harry Callahan, whose prints were the last that he exhibited in 1957 at his short-lived Photographers Gallery, must have been an influence in this regard, along with Callahan’s first mentor, Ansel Adams, albeit indirectly. The pictorial abstractions of Clarence White and Gertrude Kasebier may have appealed to DeCarava at some stage, and perhaps even Seurat’s drawings in conté crayon. Not many younger photographers have wanted to print along the outer edges of legibility, although Adam Fuss’ ghostly, liminal portraits of children in the early ‘90s may carry traces of DeCarava’s DNA.

Last year’s republication by Zwirner and Ms. DeCarava of Sweet Flypaper of Life, the 1955 collaboration with the poet Langston Hughes, was not an artistic success, marred as it was by muddy production values. Tempting though it may be to blame his low status in the wider art world on the problem of reproducing with fidelity on the page the depths and dimnesses of DeCarava’s exquisite shades, it may also be that his unsensational subjects and orientation kept him under the radar. It is telling that Zwirner admitted publicly he had never heard of DeCarava before seeing the portrait of Ornette Coleman in 2017 and then choosing to represent the estate in 2018. The gallery seems now to be all in, and that bodes well for the photographer and for those of us hungry to see what’s in the archives. Black artists who toiled in obscurity for most of their careers are finally being exhibited posthumously at august institutions—portraits of DeCarava’s friends Charles White and Romare Bearden are in Light Break—and that can only benefit all of us. Let’s hope these shows mark the beginning of a fruitful partnership.

Collector’s POV: The prints in these two shows range in price from $75000 to $100000, with some of the lots on loan and not for sale. DeCarava’s prints have been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging between $6000 and $100000.

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Read more about: Roy DeCarava, David Zwirner, David Zwirner, David Zwirner Books, First Print Press

One comment

  1. Nicholas Sack /

    Thank you, Mr Woodward, for this eloquent and informative review: a joy to read. As a photographer and printer I have admired DeCarava’s work for many years, and recently looked at his prints in the flesh for the first time, in the group show Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern in London. DeCarava’s portrayal of darkness at the verge of illegibility is extraordinary: mysterious, beautiful, and thrilling.

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