Roy DeCarava, who died on Oct. 27 at age 89, was one of the last of this country's greatest generation, the creative magicians who emerged from the Harlem Renaissance, which began at the height of the 1920s boom, under the tutelage of a fellow photographer (and a gay white man) Carl Van Vechten, grew with the rent parties of the Depression and emerged full after the war with bebop and the birth of cool.
Like Van Vechten and Gordon Parks, DeCarava's trademark was the use of shadow, the notion that the class (in all senses of the word), elegance and hard-earned small triumphs of the black experience were constantly emerging from hidden places and ignored alleys. DeCarava had two specialties, the so-called "ordinary Negro” of the street and the avatars of American black experience, what the philosopher W.E.B. DuBois called "the talented tenth."
It was DuBois' prescription in his Souls of Black Folk that only a vanguard of the best in the Harlem and Southern Pittsburgh and Chicago and Watts, Renaissance could lead his compatriots out of American apartheid. DeCarava documented this cultural swell with a disarming visual modesty, one so laid back that his genius wasn't truly recognized until his career retrospective toured the U.S. in the late ‘90s. Like Lee Friedlander, DeCarava did some excellent commercial work in the music industry, album covers and the like, which dovetailed with his portraits of jazz giants like John Coltrane and Duke Ellington.
His portraits of dancers, such as the Nicholas Brothers and Hines, Hines and Dad, are masterful plays of light and his ever-present shadows. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the wildly popular images of President Obama owe a lot to the vision of Roy DeCarava, for without them, would the Obama archetype of floating machismo even exist? Those trendies who would reduce modern photography to a subjective obsession with process and color would do well to study Roy DeCarava, for all their answers about light and magic lie in his work.CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).