THE ESTATE OF AMERICAN ARTIST Roy DeCarava (1919–2009) is now represented worldwide by David Zwirner gallery. DeCarava trained as a painter and draftsman, before dedicating his career to photography in the mid-1940s. Through his lens, images of modern life in New York City were defined by light and shadow. The photographer’s best-known project is “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” the historic collaboration with Langston Hughes. A bestseller, the 1955 volume captured daily life in Harlem through poetic words and images.
David Zwirner plans a solo exhibition of DeCarava’s work in New York in 2019, scheduled to coincide with the centennial anniversary of the artist’s birth. At the same time, a new edition of “The Sweet Flypaper of Life” will be published.
The representation marks the start of a new partnership. Art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava, the artist’s widow and executor of his estate, is collaborating with the gallery to broaden his recognition and bring his work to a wide international audience.
BORN IN HARLEM, DeCarava first studied art in the city’s public schools. Then he attended The Cooper Union and took classes at the Harlem Community Art Center (1940–1942) and George Washington Carver Art School (1944–1945), where he encountered artists Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Charles White, among others.
DeCarava also worked in the poster division of the Works Progress Administration, before briefly serving in the Army during World War II. From 1955-57, he ran a gallery in his Upper West Side apartment devoted to showing photography. He was later a professor of art at Hunter College, where he began teaching in 1975.
The artist’s first solo exhibition of photography came in 1950 at the Forty-Fourth Street Gallery in New York. Nearly two decades elapsed before he landed his first major solo museum exhibition, which was mounted at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1969. A quarter century later, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) presented “Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective” in 1996. DeCarava’s work is featured in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” the traveling exhibition that opens at the Brooklyn Museum in September.
A detail of this image appears on the cover of the original 1955 edition of “The Sweet Flypaper of Life.” Shown, ROY DECARAVA, “Arnette,” 1953. | © The Estate of Roy DeCarava 2018. All rights reserved, Courtesy David Zwirner
In the New York Times, his obituary noted the challenges he faced and his pioneering triumphs. “Over a career of almost 60 years, Mr. DeCarava—who fiercely guarded the manner in which his work was exhibited and whose visibility in the art world remained low for decades—came to be regarded as the founder of a school of African-American photography that broke with the social documentary traditions of his time,” the Times said.
“While an outspoken crusader for civil rights, he felt that his pictures would speak louder as a record of black life in America if they abandoned the overtly humanist aims of mentors like Edward Steichen [then director of MoMA’s photography department].”
“Over a career of almost 60 years, Mr. DeCarava …came to be regarded as the founder of a school of African-American photography that broke with the social documentary traditions of his time.” — The New York Times
In 1952, DeCarava became the first African American photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. He used the grant to focus on making images for what would become “The Sweet Flypaper of Life.” According to the Times, on his Guggenheim application, he said, “I do not want a documentary or sociological statement.” DeCarava continued, stating that his goal was “a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.”
All of the images on this page are from “The Sweet Flypaper of Life.” If DeCarava had only made the photographs that appear in the treasured 1955 volume, he would have established a remarkable legacy. He captured much more. His body of work expands beyond the famous project and includes images of New York’s jazz scene, the city at-large, and many more decades expressing his vision of Harlem.
Citing the “extraordinary power and beauty of his images,” David Zwirner said: “DeCarava is a giant to those who know his work, and will be a revelation to those who don’t.” CT
TOP IMAGE: ROY DECARAVA, “Graduation,” 1949. | © The Estate of Roy DeCarava 2018. All rights reserved, Courtesy David Zwirner
Since “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” Roy DeCarava’s acclaimed collaboration with Langston Hughes, was first published in 1955, additional editions have been issued, including a 1967 reprint from Hill and Wang and this version from Howard University Press in 1984. Over the years, a number of volumes have documented many other series and shows, including “Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective,” his 1996 survey at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
ROY DECARAVA, “Boy walking between cars,” 1952. | © The Estate of Roy DeCarava 2018. All rights reserved, Courtesy David Zwirner
ROY DECARAVA, “Woman and puppy,” 1951. | © The Estate of Roy DeCarava 2018. All rights reserved, Courtesy David Zwirner
ROY DECARAVA, “Boy in park, reading,” 1950. | © The Estate of Roy DeCarava 2018. All rights reserved, Courtesy David Zwirner
ROY DECARAVA, “Joe and Julia embracing,” 1953. | © The Estate of Roy DeCarava 2018. All rights reserved, Courtesy David Zwirner
ROY DECARAVA, “Man sitting on stoop with baby,” 1952. | © The Estate of Roy DeCarava 2018. All rights reserved, Courtesy David Zwirner
ROY DECARAVA, “Woman walking above, New York,” 1950. | © The Estate of Roy DeCarava 2018. All rights reserved, Courtesy David Zwirner
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