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Roy DeCarava, photographer in black and white

Matt Schudel

Roy DeCarava, one of America's great photographers, has died at the age of 89. He spent much of his life documenting his native Harlem, only he wouldn't have used the term "documenting."

He considered himself an artist whose medium happened to be photography and consciously steered away from the journalistic and documentary traditions of photography. He sought to bring a sense of artistic understanding to the lives of his fellow Harlem residents, imbuing them with dignity, pathos and character that reach beyond their social circumstances.

DeCarava did freelance work for magazines, but he was never a journalistic photographer in the way that, say, Gordon Parks and W. Eugene Smith were photojournalists. (DeCarava had a long dispute with Parks over whether Life magazine, Parks's employer, discriminated against black photographers.)

DeCarava brought a profound sensibility to his work that is distinctive, original and entirely his own. He shot entirely in black and white, which some critics have seen as somehow representative of his views about the stark social divisions in American life. (DeCarava was a sensitive and dignified man who faced considerable bias during his lifetime.)

But he would also be the first to tell you that working with black-and-white film was a conscious artistic choice, born of his training in painting, printmaking and sculpture. He liked the inky darkness of shadows, in life and in his photographs, and liked to give form and depth to the dark corners of the world that few others see.

In preparing the obituary, I found an article DeCarava 1986.pdf about DeCarava by Michael Kernan, the Post's late master of Style section profiles. (Here's the obituary of Kernan, who died in 2005.)

Here are some galleries of his photographs, plus a video tribute (Warning: Long load time):

By Matt Schudel  |  October 30, 2009; 1:17 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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I'm glad I read this, and followed the links you provided. What an impressive person he was, and what an impressive use of photography! I've learned something today--thank you.

Posted by: egb3 | November 1, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

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