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Highlighting African American Art at the CMA: Photographing Black Life: Roy DeCarava in Focus

Key Jo Lee, assistant director of academic affairs, Efe Igor, DAMLI graduate fellow
January 31, 2020
David, New York, 1952. Roy DeCarava (American, 1919–2009). 1996.20

Thanks to a generous three-year grant from the Ford and Walton Family Foundations through the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative (DAMLI), we have established three new programs at the Cleveland Museum of Art: an undergraduate museum guide training program, a graduate fellowship program, and a summer faculty residency. The DAMLI graduate fellowship is designed to allow emerging scholars to delve into the museum’s collections and spaces in a different way and to explore methods for engaging public audiences through their scholarship. In December 2019 we introduced two of our DAMLI graduate fellows, Malika Imhotep and Zaina Alsous, who presented two objects from the African American and African art collections in new and poetic ways.

We are excited to continue to advance the CMA’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion Plan by creating fellowships for graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds who are generating new perspectives on the CMA’s African American art collection. “Photographing Black Life: Roy DeCarava in Focus” is the first in the series From the Permanent Collection: Highlighting African American Art at the CMA, curated by 2019–20 DAMLI graduate fellow Efe Igor. In this essay, Igor asks us to reconsider an image of Black life created by Roy DeCarava in light of and in contrast to the social realist–inspired work of many of his contemporaries.

 

From the Permanent Collection: Highlighting African American Art at the CMA: Photographing Black Life: Roy DeCarava in Focus
By: DAMLI graduate fellow Efe Igor

David, New York, 1952. Roy DeCarava (American, 1919–2009). Gelatin silver print; 31.6 x 25.5 cm. John L. Severance Fund, 1996.20. © The Estate of Roy DeCarava and Sherry Turner DeCarava

Arms akimbo, a young boy stares directly at the camera, returning the viewers’ gaze. The boy’s direct stare gestures toward a quiet strength — a kind of subtle bravery. His skin glistens from the beads of sweat on his forehead. It appears to be a hot summer day. Although the background is blurred, it is obvious the photograph is taken outside. We can see the large sidewalk, distant stoops, and parked cars. Despite having been taken outdoors, the image conjures solitude and stillness. I cannot hear a sound. There is no drama in this scene: there is only the boy and the photographer. The young boy is not playing, dancing, or in mid speech. No, instead he is still, just staring at the camera. The gaze is an explicit acknowledgment of the photographer, which makes the intention to create an image an obvious product of their interaction. For this reason, the image lacks the pretense of romanticized social documentary or an anthropological study.

Unlike DeCarava’s contemporaries, he is not absent from the image. He is not trying to draw attention to the plight of African Americans through a kind of visual literacy or exploration. Instead, he offers an aesthetic meditation on Black life in America. The image is part of poet Langston Hughes and DeCarava’s collaborative book The Sweet Flypaper of Life, originally published in 1955. An extended visual poem narrated by the character Sister Mary Bradley, the book portrays a fictional Black community in Harlem.

Untitled, Harlem, New York, 1967. Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006). Gelatin silver print; 16.2 x 24 cm. John L. Severance Fund, 1994.278. Courtesy and copyright the Gordon Parks Foundation

In the mid-twentieth century there was an enduring effort to explore the social and economic impact of racism on Black Americans. Gordon Parks is one of the best-known photographers at that time working to make Black life in America part of a larger public conversation. In contrast to DeCarava’s portrait, Parks’s untitled rendering of a young boy does a different kind of work. As we peer through the bars of his footboard, mimicked by the bars behind his head, the young boy lying on his bed doing his homework gestures to the devastating effects of racial discrimination on Black families in the United States. The confined space of the bed and the boy’s hunched posture speak in one way to the ardor of study, but in another to the confinement of incarceration, or the confinement of entire communities to substandard housing through redlining. And while a moment of relief is provided by the open door to the left of the composition, the mysterious darkness beyond doesn’t immediately speak to liberation.

DeCarava’s and Parks’s photographs occupy opposite poles of a Black photographic tradition in the CMA’s collection. Originally published in Life magazine on March 8, 1968, Parks’s photograph is a vivid portrayal of the trials endured by African Americans during the civil rights movement. The young boy is hunched over a stack of books, writing something down in a warmly lit room. Importantly, he acts as though Parks is not present. There is an implicit blurring of the boundary between fact and fiction. Although it could be a staged photograph, it gives the illusion of reality. We, the audience, almost forget the photographer is there.

Parks understood his practice as a way to explore American history, culture, and politics: “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”1 Parks used photography to reflect on enduring social issues in the United States, whereas DeCarava intentionally broke with the social documentary tradition of his time in hopes of animating and ennobling the rich ordinariness of Black life in mid-twentieth-century America. As critic Hilton Als poignantly remarked, “By the time he died, his body of work had come together to form, among other things, a monumental poetics of blackness, one that explored the ways in which race can define a person’s style and essence, and made it clear how poorly or negligently the color black had been used in much of American photography before DeCarava came along.”2 DeCarava’s work illustrates an abiding interest in aesthetics, identity, and storytelling.

Born in 1919 in Harlem, Roy DeCarava came of age during the Harlem Renaissance. He studied painting and printmaking at Cooper Union and the Harlem Art Center as well as the George Washington Carver Art School. After working for the Works Progress Administration, he took up photography in the late 1940s. In 1952 he became the first African American to win the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. His work is revered for its subtle political commentary and strong formal qualities. Due to DeCarava’s innovations in black-and-white photography and his extensive study of Black life in the United States, he received honorary degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design, the Maryland Institute of Art, Wesleyan University, the New School, the Parsons School of Design, and the Art Institute of Boston.

In addition to DeCarava’s image, the CMA has collected the work of many other prominent Black photographers, including Dawoud Bey, Elisabeth Sunday, and Carrie Mae Weems.

A Young Man Resting on an Exercise Bike, Amityville, Long Island, 1990. Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953). Gelatin silver print from Type 55 Polaroid film; 42.9 x 55.9 cm. Gift of Carl and Joan Schneider, 2018.309. © Dawoud Bey
Akan Fisherman, Ghana: Mercy, 2010. Elisabeth Sunday (American, b. 1958). Gelatin silver print, gold-toned; 51.5 x 40 cm. Gift of Linda Grey and Ken Heitz, 2010.490. © Elisabeth Sunday
The Kitchen Table Series (detail), 1990. Carrie Mae Weems (American, b. 1953). 20 platinum prints, 14 letterpress text sheets; 38.1 x 38.1 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 2008.116. © Carrie Mae Weems

 

DAMLI graduate fellow and art critic Efe Igor is a PhD candidate in the Department of History and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Yale University. Her research interests include the Indian diaspora, colonialism, Black radical thought, public health, and citizenship. Her dissertation research focuses on Indian South African social welfare reforms in the mid-twentieth century. Efe is curating the series “From the Permanent Collection: Highlights of African American Art at the CMA” on the Thinker. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of the online culture magazine Conversation X, which offers critical reflections on beauty, entertainment, design, music, fashion, theater, and visual art.

 

David, New York, 1952 (detail). Roy DeCarava (American, 1919–2009). Gelatin silver print; 31.6 x 25.5 cm. John L. Severance Fund, 1996.20. © The Estate of Roy DeCarava and Sherry Turner DeCarava