Night feeding, New York, 1973
In 1952, DeCarava was the first African-American to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. US$3200, a sizable sum of money in those days. The average income in the U.S. was only $3500 and you could buy a gallon of gas for 20 cents and a new car to put it in for less that $2000. That money allowed him to devote an entire year to photographing his community. In his application for the Guggenheim grant DeCarava wrote: I want to photograph Harlem through the Negro People. Morning, noon, night, at work, going to work, coming home from work, at play, in the streets, talking, laughing, in the home, in the playgrounds, in the schools, bars, stores, libraries, beauty parlors, churches…I want to show the strength, the wisdom, the dignity of the Negro people. Not the famous and the well known, but the unknown and the unnamed, thus revealing the roots from which spring the greatness of all human beings.
And he did. He surely did. And when he’d spent a year making those photographs, he discovered that nobody cared. Publishers rejected the work.
It wasn’t until 1955 that DeCarava’s work found its way into print. The publication of The Sweet Flypaper of Life was made possible in part by the help of poet-playwright Langston Hughes, who wrote the text accompanying the photographs. The book, which was described as “achingly beautiful,” brought DeCarava the attention he deserved.
In a way, those early years are a fractal view of the pattern of DeCarava’s life; hard work which is ignored followed by hard work which is rewarded followed by hard work which is ignored followed by…you get the point. “I was famous, then I got buried, then I was famous again, then I got buried again and then I was famous again,” he recently told one interviewer. He continued to work as a commercial illustrator until 1958, when he was able to support himself as a freelance photographer. But it wasn’t until 1975, when he was offered a position at Hunter College, that DeCarava was free to put his own work first.
DeCarava can sound at times like a very angry man. But his work isn’t driven by anger. It’s not driven by a need to document the lives of a marginalized or oppressed community. DeCarava is neither a social documentarian nor an activist. His work is driven primarily by a desire to make art.
DeCarava wasn’t the first African-American photographer to shoot life in Harlem and Bed-Stuy, but he was the first to do so without any political or social agenda. Until he came along, photographers working in African-American communities tended to view the people living there through a sociological or political lens. They treated the neighborhoods and the people living in them as material for creating powerful images that would inspire social change. DeCarava was the first photographer to treat his world as a location in which art exists. His photographs don’t show a community in a constant state of siege and trauma; his photos show ordinarily lives of ordinary people transformed into art.
Roy DeCarava lives quietly and anonymously in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. He remains on the faculty of Hunter College. In 2006 he was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Bush at the White House. DeCarava neglected to mention the honor to his colleagues at the college. His neighbors are unaware of his accomplishments. “I don’t think they even know who I am on this street. I’m just the old man who lives next door.”
He will be 90 years old this week.
Article found here.