For over fifty years Roy DeCarava (American, b. 1919) has photographed people and places in his home of New York. His luxurious use of the dark tonal range is legendary, as is the compassion with which he captures his subjects. His photographs reflect issues that are as deeply personal as they are social. For the richness of experience his images suggest and the expressiveness of his printing style, one critic has justly described DeCarava as a “poet of light.”
DeCarava received recognition for his photography early. In 1952, just a few years after abandoning painting and printmaking for photography, he became the first African-American photographer to win a prestigious fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. The award gave him an opportunity to work full time photographing the people of Harlem in a broad range of daily activities. The poet, Langston Hughes, was so impressed that he selected 140 of the images and wrote an accompanying text so they could be published. The resulting book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, 1955, was a huge success immediately selling out the first edition of 25,000 copies.
Nearly a decade later, DeCarava completed a design for a more ambitious, large-format book that was to include 204 photographs accompanied by his own poetry. Titled The Sound I Saw, the volume intersperses photographs of jazz musicians with scenes from everyday life. In 2001, this sumptuous book was finally published as DeCarava proposed it in 1964.
The exhibition complements The RISD Museum’s annual Langston Hughes poetry reading which this year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Hughes’s birth.