Roy DeCarava (December 9, 1919 – October 27, 2009) was an African American artist and photographer. DeCarava received early critical acclaim for his photography, initially engaging and imaging the lives of African Americans and jazz musicians in the communities where he lived and worked. Over a career that spanned nearly six decades, DeCarava came to be known as a founder in the field of black and white fine art photography, advocating for an approach to the medium based on the core value of an individual, subjective creative sensibility, which was separate and distinct from the “social documentary” style of his predecessors.
DeCarava produced five books, including The Sound I Saw and The Sweet Flypaper of Life, as well as landmark museum catalogs and retrospective surveys from the Friends of Photography and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The subject of at least 15 solo exhibitions, DeCarava was the first African-American photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship and as a result of the fellowship, was able to photograph his community and New York City for one year; expressing early creative impressions through the black and white gelatin silver process. In 2006, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest award given to artists by the United States Government.
DeCarava encouraged other photographers and believed in the accessibility of the medium. From 1955 to 1957, at his own expense, he established and supported A Photographer’s Gallery in his apartment in a brownstone block at 48 West 85th Street, New York, in which was shown work by the great names of American photography of the period.
Coming of age in the 1940s, DeCarava appears nothing short of iconoclastic in both his approach to photography, a medium strenuously identified with evidentiary truth, and in his esthetic ambitions to, as he said, “break through a kind of literalness,” and “express some things I felt.” Maintaining his quest to create a visually autonomous photographic subject of color, DeCarava endured decades of embittering misunderstanding. He has pointed out over and over that despite his “reputation as a documentar[y] photographer, … I really never was,” and reiterated his steadfastly modernist concern to achieve “a creative expression,” rather than a “documentary or sociological statement.”
His largest work is Roy DeCarava: A retrospective, over 200 black and white photos spanning the late 1940s to the present. Another work of Roy’s is The Sweet Flypaper of Life in 1955. Roy speaks on the piece by saying ”in spite of poverty, you see people with dignity and a certain quality that contrasts with where they live and what they’re doing.” His Guggenheim fellowship helped fund the project while he spent a full year shooting the photographs for the book. He focused on shooting experiences that everybody can relate too.
DeCarava died on October 27, 2009.