“I do not want a documentary or sociological statement,” wrote Roy DeCarava, in his application for a Guggenheim fellowship, in the early 1950s. Instead, DeCarava desired “a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.”
DeCarava won that 1952 Guggenheim fellowship, becoming the first Black photographer to receive the coveted award. It was a fitting honor for a man who spent his life expressing himself through vibrant imagery.
Born in Harlem in 1919, DeCarava first studied art in the New York public school system, graduating with honors
in 1938. He found work in the poster division of the Works Progress Administration producing prints and paintings before studying art at The Cooper Union, the Harlem Community Art Center, and the George Washington Carver Art School. At the latter, he engaged the likes of Charles White, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Norman Lewis while studying the works of Vincent van Gogh and Diego Rivera.
Initially using his camera to gather images and information for his paintings, by the mid-1940s, DeCarava operated exclusively as a photographer. His 35mm camera in hand, he moved about the city capturing compelling images and intending to understand his relationship to his subject. DeCarava examined everyday Black life in Harlem, its vibrant neighborhoods, and such artistic icons as Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, and John Coltrane. Unlike most photographers at the time, he developed and printed his own images.
DeCarava held his first solo exhibition of photography at Forty-Fourth Street Gallery in New York in 1950. There, he met the director of the Museum of Modern Art’s department of photography, Edward Steichen, who bought three works for the museum’s collection and urged DeCarava to apply for the Guggenheim fellowship he won two years later. The one-year fellowship enabled DeCarava to complete a project ultimately called The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a collaborative work with Langston Hughes mixing photography and poetic narratives within the urban backdrop of Harlem. Now regarded a classic of photographic visual literature, the resulting book was so popular that it went out of print several times while trying to meet public demand. In the midst of this success, DeCarava opened “A Photographer’s Gallery” on West 84th Street in Manhattan, the first gallery to exclusively focus on American fine art silver gelatin photography in the nation.
In 1975, while exhibiting his popular photographs in solo presentations domestically and abroad, DeCarava accepted a teaching position at Hunter College. In 1988, he was named Distinguished Professor of Art of the City University of New York and, a decade later, won a Master of Photography Award from the International Center of Photography. In 2006, three years before his death, DeCarava received a National Medal of Arts from the President of the United States, the highest civilian honor given by the National Endowment for the Arts.
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