Images from his neighborhood Photographer: Roy DeCarava looked below the surface in capturing on film the ordinary people of Harlem.

November 13, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

For legendary African-American photographer Roy DeCarava, a picture is a highly personal statement about the artist's thoughts, feelings and beliefs about the world.

"Art is communication, reaching people and introducing them to your ideals, your thoughts and yourself," DeCarava said in a recent interview.

"Then perhaps you can be of some service, in the sense you offer something people can identify with and use as a jumping-off point for their own explorations."

DeCarava, whose pictures are on display at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art through Jan. 4, will visit Baltimore at 7 tonight to share his thoughts on photography during a discussion at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Exploration has been part of DeCarava's art since he first took up the camera in the late 1940s.

But unlike many photographers of the era who roamed the globe in search of material, DeCarava restricted himself almost exclusively to one small corner of the world, the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, where he has lived all his life.

Born in 1919, DeCarava grew up during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a period of astonishing creative ferment among black writers, artists and actors.

"I originally planned to be an artist, studying painting and printmaking," DeCarava recalled. "I only started taking photographs as reference material for that, and it sort of took over."

In 1952, DeCarava was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for young artists. He was the first African-American photographer ever to win the award.

In his proposal to the Guggenheim Foundation that year, he outlined what he hoped to accomplish with his prize.

"I want to photograph Harlem through the Negro people," he wrote. "Not the famous and the well known, but the unknown and the unnamed, thus revealing the roots from which spring the greatness of all human beings."

The pictures that resulted have become some of the most beloved images of that era. He photographed ordinary people in ordinary situations, employing what soon became recognized as signature style of great empathy and tenderness.

"A lot of the photography of that time was documentary, in that it alluded to being objective and literal," DeCarava said. "But I jTC always wanted more than information, more than, 'This is the way this looks.' I always wanted an emotional content or ambiguity that allowed people to explore what they were experiencing."

DeCarava has always insisted that although his most famous photographs are of African-Americans, he views his subjects as human beings first, not through the prism of race.

"The question of color is just an accident of genes that makes us different," he said. "We get turned around by this subject of race, and it's still with us because we're discussing an illusion, a falsehood."

DeCarava free-lanced during the 1960s and 1970s for a number of magazines, but after a while he felt photojournalism was limiting. Since 1976, he has taught at Hunter College in New York and returned to using the camera to pursue his personal vision.

Although he admires great photographers of the past -- he cites Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Farm Security Administration photographers of the 1930s as influences -- DeCarava is dismayed by the direction contemporary photography has taken.

"Frankly, I think photography and art are in a bad state today," he says. "There's been a breakdown of the forms we tended to use as guideposts. I don't mind that, but you have to replace them with something else that should be better. And that's not happening.

"I think the culture has lost a kind of humanism that was very important to us. We lost it to the concept of process, which has become all important -- how we do rather that why or what we do."

Still, as one who has always been committed to fulfilling a personal vision, he hesitates to criticize today's younger photographers too harshly.

"When photography meets a need in terms of people, it has a place," he said. "The only question is, what is your perception of that need and how well is it being met? We should find our own answers rather than have them given to us. It's hard work, but that's good for you. It makes you brighter."

Roy DeCarava

When: 7 tonight

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at North Charles Street

Tickets: Free

Call: 410-396-7100

Pub Date: 11/13/98

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