Remembering Roy DeCarava

On October 27, 2009, groundbreaking photographer and professor Roy DeCarava passed away, leaving behind an unparalleled legacy of achievements in Black photography. As the first African American photographer to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, DeCarava dedicated his life to capturing the people of Harlem while mentoring future generations of photographers as a professor in Hunter College. The following article from The Chronicle of Higher Education was published shortly after his death and commemorates his accomplished life.

Hunter College Professor Who Photographed the People of Harlem Dies at 89

November 8, 2009
By Peter Monaghan

“When, as a budding photographer, Roy DeCarava applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952, his proposal stated: ‘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 springs the greatness of all human beings.'”

“In images that were as artistic as they were documentary, Mr. DeCarava depicted neighbors singing, workmen trudging home, and musicians playing, embracing, or merely walking from the stage. His subjects’ purpose, perseverance, and elegance despite dire circumstances embodied ‘a life force that each of us has, a will to live and a will to be here,’ he said.”

“He found in their lives a radiance that, paradoxically, he captured in shadows and dark hues. Using hand-held cameras and only natural light, he transformed conditions that most photographers would consider obstacles into a personal aesthetic of light and life. His images, although often dim, glimmer redemptively.”

“Mr. DeCarava grew up in Harlem, the only child of a single mother, a Jamaican immigrant. While a high-school student, he worked in the poster division of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. He won a scholarship to study at the prestigious Cooper Union, only to leave after two years due to racial hostility from the institution’s virtually all-white student body. After a stint in the Army, he attended two Harlem art schools, and mingled in the area’s thriving intellectual circles with such eminent painters as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Norman Lewis.”

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