2006 National Medal of Arts
ROY R. DECARAVA
Photographer, Brooklyn, NY
Roy R. DeCarava is a master photographer and pioneer in the art of photography,
a vocation to which he devoted his life for more than 60 years. Living and
working primarily in New York City, he used a 35-millimeter camera to develop
and print his own images. He is acknowledged as "the first to devote
serious attention to the black aesthetic as it relates to photography and
the black experience in America," according to critic Alain Locke.
He was also the first African American photographer to win a Guggenheim
Born in 1919 in Harlem, DeCarava came of age in the 1940s, during the Harlem
Renaissance when the neighborhood was the site of extraordinary artistic
ferment and home to many prominent artists, musicians, and writers. He attended
The Cooper Union Institute for two years and then left to attend the Harlem
Art Center. His early jobs were as a painter and commercial illustrator
but he was attracted to photography because of its directness.
From the beginning, DeCarava's style combined intimacy of tone with a formal
vocabulary. Most strikingly in interiors -- the portraits of saxophonist
John Coltrane performing or the still lifes in "Coathanger" (1961)
and "Ketchup Bottles, Table and Coat" -- light and dark values
offer expressive qualities, rather than literal records. In images such
as the radically compressed "Force" (1963) or buoyant "Haynes,
Jones, and Benjamin" (1956), the picture frame serves to strengthen
the composition's overall structure. The point of view of the photos does
not monumentalize or dramatize the captured moment. He relies only on ambient
light, even in cramped apartments and dim nightclubs, becoming a master
of dark, not-quite-blacks tones that invite viewers to see into the shadows.
Unlike many photographers of his day, DeCarava did not intend that his
photos be viewed as visual documentation but rather as artistic expressions
in their own right so that his images were, in his words, "serious,"
"artistic," and universally "human." The affection he
felt for the people and places of New York are evident in the integrity
of his images. Among the many subjects his camera focused upon, he expressed
an early desire to portray black people, illuminating the artistic and human
qualities of each individual life through the lens of his perceptions.
DeCarava worked for a time at Sports Illustrated but left that
job eventually to take a teaching position at Hunter College where he has
been named a Distinguished Professor on the faculty of art. He has been
the subject of 15 solo exhibitions. His work resides in the collections
of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Museum of Modern Art
and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as well as in the Museum
of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian
American Art Museum.
2006 National Medal of Arts recipient and photographer Roy R. DeCarava accepts his award from President and Mrs. Laura Bush in an Oval Office ceremony on November 9, 2006. Mr. DeCarava's citation reads, "In the midst of the Civil Rights movement, his revealing work seized the attention of our Nation while displaying the dignity and determination of his subjects." White House photo by Paul Morse.
< 2006 National Medal of Arts press release
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