Roy DeCarava: Selected Works – Photographs by Roy Decarava | Exhibition review by Mark Durden

In an interview from 1990, Harlem-born Roy DeCarava said, “The Black artist looks at the same world in a different way than a Euro-American artist.” He was making an important distinction from the formalist tendencies being pursued by artists at that time and how the Black artist had to “grapple with staying alive, with feeling alien in a society that barely tolerates him.”

This exhibition at David Zwirner is only DeCarava’s second London solo show and comes 13 years after his death. The first was at The Photographers’ Gallery in 1988 and marked 40 years of his photography. Beautifully presented, this exhibition of 66 hand-printed silver gelatin black and white prints, encompasses over half a century of work, from 1948 to 2004.

“Bill and son,” 1962. Roy DeCarava
© The Estate of Roy DeCarava. All rights reserved. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner. Courtesy David Zwirner

His subtle and nuanced photographs evoke a wide range of feelings: “I’m not a documentarian, I never have been. I think of myself as poetic, a maker of visions, dreams, and a few nightmares.”

An available light photographer, DeCarava never relied on flash as it altered the light in which he perceived things. Printing was central to the expressive form of his work and he spoke of how his subjects were “reinterpreted” through printing. By printing softly and shifting the tonal range towards the grey and dark end of the scale, DeCarava produced photographs that are sensuous, moody, intimate and deeply human.

“Protester behind pillar,” 1975.
Roy DeCarava
 © The Estate of Roy DeCarava. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner

His picture of a dark narrow corridor with little illumination, Hallway, 1953, as he has said, was one of his first photographs to “break through a kind of literalness.” It is about “all the hallways I grew up in.”

In relation to the totality of his life’s work this show offers only a small selection, with some notable omissions, but what is here confirms his remarkable contribution to photography and a record of Black life in America.

“Two women, mannequin’s hand,” 1952. Roy DeCarava
 © The Estate of Roy DeCarava. All rights reserved. Courtesy David Zwirner

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