Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Minneapolis, MN




Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective


Man coming up the subway stairs, 1952

The largest and most comprehensive survey ever devoted to the work of Roy DeCarava, one of the central figures in postwar American photography, opens at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) on February 14, 1999. Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective will be on view through April 25, 1999.

The exhibition spans DeCarava's career, from his groundbreaking pictures of everyday life in Harlem, through the civil rights protests of the early 1960s, to more recent lyrical studies of nature. It includes a generous selection of DeCarava's remarkable jazz photographs--Billy Holiday, Milt Jackson, John Coltrane, and many others.

Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective surveys nearly half a century of DeCarava's work through some 200 black-and-white photographs made from the late 1940s through the mid-1990s. The exhibition explores continuities of style and theme by juxtaposing works that span decades.

On the occasion of the exhibition, Roy DeCarava stated, "Images and the making of images have been and are still central to me as a person and to my growth as an artist. Photography is the best way I know of to express my concerns and my values. Exhibiting and publishing the work are ways of sharing and confirming my belief in the power of art to illuminate and transform our lives."

Organized by Peter Galassi, Chief Curator for The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Ray DeCarava: A Retrospective is presented in the Twin Cities under the guidance of Ted Hartwell, MIA Curator of Photography. "With this exhibition and the accompanying publication, Roy DeCarava's extraordinarily humane and poetic life's work has attained the prominence and visibility it has always merited." Hartwell said. "His remarkably consistent contribution to American photography is at last in full view."

Born in New York City in 1919, DeCarava studied painting and printmaking at the Cooper Union School of Art, the Harlem Community Art Center, and the George Washington Art School. He turned to photography in the late 1940s and quickly mastered the vocabulary of the small, hand-held camera, which was rapidly becoming the hallmark of advanced American work.

Among the earliest works in the exhibition are photographs that first appeared in the book The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), with a fictional text by Langston Hughes. DeCarava made many of the pictures after winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952--the first awarded to an African-American photographer--which allowed him to spend a full year photographing daily life in Harlem. The pictures brought a new gentleness and intimacy to photography .

In Man coming up subway stairs (1952), one of several subway pictures in the exhibition, one exhausted worker stands for all working men at the end of the day. Another example of DeCarava's metaphoric bent is Hallway (1953), in which an inhumanly narrow passage is described as both a haunting instance of the economics of building for poor people and a thing of beauty.

In 1955 DeCarava opened A Photographer's Gallery in New York, a pioneering effort to win recognition for photography as a fine art; the gallery remained open for more than two years. In 1956 he embarked on an extensive series of photographs of jazz musicians. Many of the jazz pictures, such as Coltrane on soprano (1963), show individuals absorbed in the act of creation. Others, such as Billie Holiday (1953), are warm and affecting portraits. Together with photographs of Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Norman Lewis, and others, these portraits form an important body of work.

DeCarava quit his job as a commercial illustrator in 1958, and for most of the next two decades he earned his living as a free lance photographer. In 1963 he helped found the Kamoinge Workshop, an association of African-American photographers based in Harlem. He ended his freelance career in 1975 to teach photography at Hunter College, where he is a Distinguished Professor of Art at the City University of New York.

In the early 1960s, DeCarava's work grew more tough-minded in its response to racial discrimination, notably in pictures of laborers in New York's garment district and of civil rights protests. Mississippi freedom marcher, Washington, D.C. (1963), made at the historic March on Washington, exemplifies the photographer's instinct for isolating the essential detail. Instead of attempting to encompass the vast event, DeCarava's picture enters into the spirit of the march, distilling a collective determination and hope in the expression of a single face.

A life-long New Yorker, DeCarava almost always has photographed close to home. His art has continued to evolve, as his work from the mid-1980s attests. DeCarava's hand-camera style rejects artificial light as an intrusion upon experience and thus accepts deep shadow and blur as marks of authenticity. Beginning in 1985, DeCarava elaborated this principle in pictures whose long exposures make the blur of motion an active stylistic device.


Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective, by Peter Galassi with an essay by Sherry Turner DeCarava, was published by The Museum of Modern Art and distributed in the United States and Canada by Harry N. Abrams. Inc. Both clothbound and paperbound editions are available in the Museum Shop.

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