Roy DeCarava:
The Work of Art

Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) spent six decades walking the streets of New York and observing his environment. These contemplative expeditions fostered within him a deep understanding of human nature and the power of seeing. His photographs push the forms found on each print’s surface to connect with the emotional experience produced by viewing itself. DeCarava was interested in what he considered the poetics of the image: those symbolic elements that allow a viewer to create a relationship with what they saw using their own memory and imagination. Every picture was meant to be personal.

In all stages of the image-making process, DeCarava exemplified an intimacy between himself and the world around him. He relied solely on existing light because any kind of mechanical flash would have altered the true essence of the experiences he saw. He refused compositions that reinforced social stereotypes or someone else’s political agenda. With purpose, he initially focused on everyday life in Harlem, because he felt that only a Black photographer could get to the strength, wisdom, and dignity that inform the true heritage of Black people in America. However, his full archive of images represents a broad search for visual meaning—from the civil rights movement to jazz musicians, abstractions, studies of nature and gestures of people—which taken together suggest a unifying symphony of artistic and public life.

Technology has evolved, but our desire to find meaning through images has not. In the pocket where DeCarava would have kept a spare roll of film, we now keep our phones, all of them equipped with cameras that enable us to share our dramas and daydreams in real time. We invite you to slow down this pace as you move through our galleries. Take your time with these photographs. DeCarava’s work offers an opportunity to look inside of ourselves, and understand the power of our own, unique vantage points. His art has taught us how to cherish what we see, for every view contains an expression of beauty and promise.

We see you.

The UM

On view March 30, 2019 through June 30, 2019.

Installation views, Roy DeCarava: The Work of Art, at The Underground Museum. Courtesy of The Underground Museum. Photos by Zak Kelley.