Using a camera and an eye for a good picture, 88-year-old Roy DeCarava has been chronicling the black experience in New York for 60 years, and he’s taught photography at Hunter College for more than 30 years. NY1’s Budd Mishkin sits down one-on-one with the photographer in this week’s segment of One on 1.
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What goes into taking a memorable picture?
"I believe in patience and knowledge and skill and love – gotta be love,” says photographer Roy DeCarava, 88.
DeCarava has been taking pictures professionally for 60 years and he remembers the back story for just about every picture.
“That’s Louis,” he says pointing out one photos. "The reason why he is running is because he is going to a funeral of Fletcher Henderson, the great jazz musician."
Many of the shots that fill his books, like the picture of a young girl amidst rubble on her graduation day, were the result of good fortune, but also plenty of anticipation.
"I said, "Oh my God, when she gets there, I got to pull the shutter, because that's where the whole thing comes together. So I waited. A good photographer requires is not only patience, but confidence that his patience is well-timed."
DeCarava has primarily photographed the black experience in New York, like his beloved jazz musicians.
"I love this man and of course, that’s John Coltrane,” says DeCarava.
But what is it about jazz musicians?
“Their devotion,” says DeCarava. “I used to photograph them, because everything they did expressed what they were doing. They were an uninhibited.”
And working people, like the tired man coming up from the subway at the end of another long day.
“What happened was a miracle. He was coming up the stairs and I ran out of film,” says DeCarava. “He was so tired that he stopped at the landing, and I was able to load the camera and take the picture. How's that?”
DeCarava’s work has been shown in exhibits around the country. He was the first black photographer to win a Guggenheim fellowship in 1952. But for much of his early career, he worked nine to five as a commercial artist and took pictures before and after work.
In 1975 he started teaching at Hunter College, where he still teaches. There is some irony in that.
"I would never listen to a photographic teacher in my life and I never have,” says DeCarava.
So why should his students listen to him?
“Because I'm their teacher,” he says. “Because I think I'm a pretty good teacher. And I think I like myself enough to say that.”
DeCarava says he wants to give his students the freedom to be inspired. In his own work, he has always been inspired by photographs in black and white, using only ambient light — moments preserved forever.
“I'm not doing anything else but listening and trying to capture, to give a physical form to some process that's going on in my mind,” says DeCarava. “The only evidence I can have of what's going through my mind is this physical presentation of the present moment.”
There were early signs growing up in Harlem that DeCarava would make his living in pictures.
"I was a chalk drawer. I drew with chalk on the pavement,” he says.
His goal was to become a painter, only there was one problem.
"I was a lousy painter. I was! A terrible painter,” he says.
His mom wanted him to play the violin.
“Yeah, but she soon regretted it,” he jokes.
DeCarava was raised by a loving single mother, but he says not having a father left a hole that was never filled.
“I was wounded, and I missed something very important to every child – to have a family and to be part of a family,” says DeCarava.
He eventually enrolled at Cooper Union, at the time almost entirely white. He says he learned a lot and found the students encouraging, but he says the teachers ignored him.
“I was a sort of ghost figure there because I was the only one," DeCarava recalls.
He felt racism again during World War II, when he was stationed down south right next to a German prisoner of war camp, only to see the German POWs treated better than the African American soldiers.
He came back to Harlem, started working as a photographer, and in 1952 became the first black photographer to win a Guggenheim fellowship.
“White photographers called me and they got angry with me, because I won it,” says DeCarava. “They said, 'You won the Guggenheim?' I could see the face screwing up and it was likely like this, "How could you win a Guggenheim?’”
In the mid-50s, DeCarava befriended poet Langston Hughes and the two produced a book about life in Harlem, "The Sweet Fly Paper of Life."
For two years he had a gallery to showcase his work.
But it would be years later before museums would exhibit his work in New York and other cities. DeCarava believes racism kept his work from being more accessible.
“It's always been a constant struggle to get my work before the public in a way that was respectable,” says DeCarava. “And this idea about black photographers and racism, I don't want to dwell on that, but it dwells on me."
His work has been the subject of 15 solo exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art in 1996. And in 2006 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
“My days of bitterness are over because I have the sense enough to know that this is not good for me to be bitter,” says DeCarava.
DeCarava and his wife Sherrie have been married almost 40 years and they have three daughters. He also has children from a previous marriage.
He's had some leg problems over the last year, so he hasn't taken many pictures lately, but the feeling is still there — the eyes too.
"I still see pictures. I see pictures all the time. Jesus, it rains. Pictures are everywhere,” says DeCarava. “The wonderful thing about photography is that it escapes these time zones. You look at a photograph, and it's now, it's not then.”
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