Roy DeCarava’s stunning photos of jazz greats

Roy DeCarava’s stunning photos of jazz greats

A pair of exhibitions highlight the work of neglected African-American photographer Roy DeCarava and his mysterious and captivating photos of black America.

When you first look at the photograph, it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust. The frame is almost entirely black, with a thin vertical line of grey just off centre. At the line’s base, there is another grey line, this time horizontal; a crucifix, of sorts. Somewhere off to the right are two tiny humans seen in profile, floating in a pool of velvety shadow.

Roy DeCarava’s stunning photos of jazz greats View image of (Credit: Estate of Roy DeCarava. Courtesy David Zwirner)

Slowly, the puzzle resolves: the vertical line is a steel pillar caught in a shaft of low sunlight, the horizontal one a sliver of cobbled street. The two people are walking past. But the shadows are so deep, and the composition so abstract, it is almost impossible to tell. When people talk about street photography, this isn’t usually what they mean.

More like this:

–    The Instagram photos reframing Africa

–    ‘Disarmingly intimate’ photos of women

–    The changing face of India’s weddings

The photographs by the post-war US artist Roy DeCarava contain many such puzzles. Not all are so easily resolved. How about that shot of a hillside, silhouetted against the sky? (In fact a close-up of a human figure, taken in 1967.) Or a study in white and muted greys that might be an abstract by Mark Rothko? (The hallway of an apartment block, shot in 1953.) Whereas photography is sometimes said to be all about ‘the decisive moment’ – in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous phrase – DeCarava’s pictures are anything but decisive, and seem to exist almost beyond measurable time. Spend long enough peering into their depths, and you can find almost anything.

Roy DeCarava’s stunning photos of jazz greats View image of (Credit: Estate of Roy DeCarava. Courtesy David Zwirner)

If you haven’t come across DeCarava’s name, you’re hardly alone. The subject of a double exhibition currently occupying the gallerist David Zwirner’s two spaces in New York, his reputation is almost as shadowy as his pictures. Despite being one of the leading African-American artists of his generation – the first black photographer ever to win a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952 – DeCarava is a neglected figure. His books spent years out of print and his pictures have rarely been exhibited, particularly on their own. This New York exhibition is the first time they have been seen in any quantity for more than 20 years.

“We felt it was long since time,” his widow, Sherry Turner DeCarava, who has curated the show, tells BBC Culture. Her only sadness, she adds, is that her husband isn’t here to enjoy it: he died in 2009.

Roy DeCarava’s stunning photos of jazz greats View image of (Credit: Estate of Roy DeCarava. Courtesy David Zwirner)

Spread across two separate locations in New York, in Chelsea and the Upper East Side, it offers interlocking sides to DeCarava’s work. Downtown, there is Light Break, which brings together street scenes, portraits, landscapes and studies from more than half a century of picture-taking, many of them printed in the intense, glowering tones that became DeCarava’s signature. Uptown, there’s The Sound I Saw, which reconstructs a book project the photographer worked on for the best part of 15 years in the late 40s and 50s.

A black painter, to be an artist, had to join the white world or not function – Roy DeCarava

The Sound I Saw pays tribute to DeCarava’s lifelong love of jazz, with a combination of his own words and photographs (no publisher could be persuaded to take it, and for decades the pictures languished in a suitcase). Portraits of jazz greats are here – Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, John Coltrane in full flow – but DeCarava captured his most poetic images far away from the spotlight, in the crepuscular corners of now-lost jazz clubs and rehearsal studios. In one image taken in Harlem in 1956, we see two men dancing in a cavernous hall: angular figures twisted in matching poses, silhouetted against a soft gleam of reflected light from the wooden floor. Despite their absorption, everyone else in the room seems to be looking the other way – a curiously moving portrayal of what it feels like to be lost in the music.

Roy DeCarava’s stunning photos of jazz greats View image of 1961 (Credit: Estate of Roy DeCarava. Courtesy David Zwirner)

On the Upper East Side, the jazz pictures are accompanied by a soundtrack featuring many of the musicians DeCarava depicted, but they’re so astonishingly atmospheric they hardly need it – you can practically hear the sizzle of cymbals and thud of string bass. A 1961 portrait of the drummer Elvin Jones is another study in rapt concentration: sweat streaming down his forehead, eyes closed in ecstasy, he might be in the midst of a religious experience. The haziness and dense grain of the image intensify the hallucinatory effect. Photography and music – both art forms much concerned with timing and tone – seem to operate as one.

Infinite shades of grey

Born in Harlem in 1919, DeCarava was a New York photographer through and through. He grew up in the city, and only rarely (at least judging from his finished photographs) stepped outside it. Though he trained as a painter, he quickly realised that the chances of an African-American artist breaking through were punishingly slim: “A black painter, to be an artist, had to join the white world or not function,” he later said.

Instead, in the mid-1940s, he bought an Argus A rangefinder – one of the cheapest cameras of its type – and taught himself to photograph between shifts as a printmaker. His first pictures were intimate images of family and friends, developed in his apartment with a homemade enlarger. In 1958, assisted by the Guggenheim award and the success of a book-length collaboration with the poet Langston Hughes, The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955) – affectionately candid shots of Harlem’s African-American community – he finally felt confident enough to give up his day job and devote himself to photography.

Roy DeCarava’s stunning photos of jazz greats View image of (Credit: Estate of Roy DeCarava. Courtesy David Zwirner)

Though DeCarava was methodical in his picture-taking, it was in the darkroom that he discovered himself as an artist. Though he began by printing his black-and-white negatives as most photographers did, trying to squeeze as much dynamic contrast out of each frame as possible, he tired of the brittle-looking images that resulted. Encouraged by another photographer, Homer Page, DeCarava began to experiment with moodier hues, leaving his pictures deliberately underexposed. Soon he was spending days at a time in the darkroom, delving deeper and deeper into the possibilities of a single negative, playing with the age-old chemistry of silver gelatin prints and light – even where light was almost non-existent. “The difference between me and other photographers,” DeCarava once said, “is that I refuse to accept darkness as a limitation.”

The images he produced are like little else. One picture from 1952, created after days of effort in the darkroom, is simply entitled Sun and Shade: two children playing on a city street, seen from high above. A thick swath of shadow divides them like a wall. An image captured nine years later, Coathanger, is more quietly beautiful. We see the interior of a diner, row after row of banquettes receding into the gloom, with a solitary wooden coathanger catching what might be the last of the sun. So many different tones are visible in the print, from powerful coal black to the palest dove grey, that it feels like you might never get to the end of them.

“Somewhere in the process of developing the image, making it appear, playing with the chemicals, the picture spoke to him, told him what to do,” says Sherry Turner DeCarava. To call him a black-and-white photographer does him a disservice, she adds: “He said that most of the images that seem black aren’t black at all; they’re a very a dark grey. Those greys were his medium as an artist.”

Roy DeCarava’s stunning photos of jazz greats View image of (Credit: Estate of Roy DeCarava. Courtesy David Zwirner)

There is, of course, another reading of DeCarava’s determination to explore the darkest sides of the photographic spectrum: as a way of commenting on racism, and black Americans’ struggle for civil rights in the late 1950s and 60s. Certainly DeCarava knew that, if was difficult to make a career as an African-American painter, it was hardly easier as a photographer: mainstream magazines and newspapers were notoriously reluctant to hire photographers who weren’t white (something he campaigned against), and museum curators were even less interested in work produced by or depicting people of colour. When he started, DeCarava once said: “There were no black images of dignity, no images of beautiful black people.” He spent his career trying to make up that deficit. And he was scornful of outsiders making objectifying assumptions about ‘black experience’. Asked by white curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to contribute to a show of Harlem photographs in 1969, he pointedly refused, saying they had no understanding of the community.

Roy DeCarava’s stunning photos of jazz greats View image of (Credit: Estate of Roy DeCarava. Courtesy David Zwirner)

“He didn’t mind people saying that he was a black photographer,” says Sherry Turner DeCarava. “He just pointed out that that was only one definition of who he was.”

Though DeCarava most often depicted people of colour, his images don’t reduce his subjects to single issues or taglines

DeCarava’s pictures likewise refuse to editorialise. An image from 1964 shows a black delivery man, his body bent and straining, hauling crates of Pepsi off a trolley. We can’t see his face, only his arms and torso: it is impossible to tell whether he’s exhausted, or just focusing on the task. The picture isn’t a one-liner about racism and exploitation. DeCarava seems equally fascinated by the textures and shapes in the frame – a playful jumble of glass bottles, advertising logos and slogans (“FAR MORE CHARCOAL,” one advert reads: given his taste for dark grey, it might have been the photographer’s motto). The picture simply asks us to observe. What we see there is up to us.

Roy DeCarava’s stunning photos of jazz greats View image of (Credit: Estate of Roy DeCarava. Courtesy David Zwirner)

That seems to have been DeCarava’s approach: as an artist he viewed life in the same infinite shades of grey he attempted to capture in the darkroom. He photographed on the street, but rejected conventional street photography; though his images document reality, they are never purely documentary. Equally, though DeCarava most often depicted people of colour, his images don’t reduce his subjects to single issues or taglines. They accommodate many realities simultaneously.

“He understood those things,” says Sherry Turner DeCarava. “He wasn’t ignoring them or trying to deny them. But he saw it from many different facets.” Was that one reason he was comparatively neglected: he didn’t quite fit any of the categories? “It could be so. But he wasn’t neglected by people who loved him.”

Roy DeCarava’s stunning photos of jazz greats View image of (Credit: Estate of Roy DeCarava. Courtesy David Zwirner)

One DeCarava image stays with you. It depicts the face of a young woman standing behind a man, who’s perhaps even younger. The image is cropped so tightly that it is impossible to tell who they are, or where. It’s only when you read the caption that you realise that she is a freedom marcher from Mississippi, taking part in the famous civil rights demonstration in Washington DC in August 1963. No placards or slogans are visible, and the woman’s expression is unreadable; DeCarava has caught her in a moment of what might be contemplation. She seems aware that she’s part of history, but she also stands outside it. And she looks straight past us: whatever she sees, we cannot. There is a mystery here we can’t quite penetrate, no matter how hard we try. DeCarava seems to have preferred it that way.

Light Break and The Sound I Saw are at David Zwirner galleries, New York, until 26 October.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.