04 February 2008

Roy DeCarava on the Complexities of Race, Politics, Shadow and Sensuousness

In this series of passages Roy DeCarava circles back, starting from race and politics to photographing and lighting and color, and back to politics, or political doubts and anxieties about the second photograph. What I like is that DeCarava has an open-ended conception of what makes the photograph "work," in the sense that it is precisely the tensions it elicits instead of the lessons it imparts that he finds most powerful. It seems to me that his assessment intertwines aesthetics and politics is an especially intimate way.
"When I photograph people, even when I alluded to their Blackness, and the best part of their heritage I was looking at people as human beings, I was, looking at them at the stage before they were called Black. The color of one’s skin has been used as a device ever since it was discovered, to confuse us, to demean; and when I say us, I’m talking about everybody. It’s a sickness that touches us all, and I think we have to be careful that we don’t embrace it. My militancy was always curbed by a sense of, ‘Well, yes, it’s important that I know this, but it’s more important that I do this — that I resist.’ So that kept me quite political, in the soldier sense: committed to social change. There isn’t anything that isn’t political."
"I made a choice not to get caught in the meanness; I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the possibilities."

Couple Dancing, New York (1956) © Roy DeCarava
"I happen to believe that photography is not about black and white; it’s about grays. [. . .] A photographic scale has no edge; it’s a smooth transition from white to black, and it’s certainly not digitized. The standards that have been set for photography are essentially standards that the manufacturer imposed on the process. And it was the manufacturers who said that a negative has to be a certain way, has to have this, that, and the other to be viable, but I don’t believe in that. I believe that what I say is correct, and when I want a picture, I don’t care how dark it is. I believe that if I feel something, and I have my camera, I should try to capture it. [. . .] So I don’t ever allow the process to limit me. When it comes down to it, I love looking at those dark tones and the grays. It’s so sensuous to me."

Dancers, New York (1956) © Roy DeCarava
"This photograph was taken at a dance of a social club at the 110th St. Manor at Fifth Avenue. It is about the intermission where they had entertainment and the entertainment was two dancers who danced to jazz music. That’s what this image is all about; it’s about these two dancers who represent a terrible torment for me in that I feel a great ambiguity about the image because of them. It’s because they are in some ways distorted characters. What they actually are is two black male dancers who dance in the manner of an older generation of black vaudeville performers. The problem comes because their figures remind me so much of the real life experience of blacks in their need to put themselves in an awkward position before the man, for the man; to demean themselves in order to survive, to get along. In a way, these figures seem to epitomize that reality. And yet there is something in the figures not about that; something in the figures that is very creative, that is very real and very black in the finest sense of the word. So there is this duality this ambiguity in the photograph that I find very hard to live with. I always have to make a decision in a case like this – is it good or is it bad? I have to say that even though it jars some of my sensibilities and reminds me of things that I would rather not be reminded of, it is still a good picture. In fact, it is good just because of those things and in spite of those things. The picture works."
The first three quotations in this post are taken from Dread Scott "An Interview with Roy DeCarava," A Gathering of the Tribes #7 (undated, seemingly 1996) which you can find here. The final one is from a series of interviews with Sherry Turner DeCarava published in Roy DeCarava Photographs (1981).

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi James,

The Dread Scott interview link didn't work.

This works:


Great blog!


Jim Beecher

08 February, 2008 10:23  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks Jim. I hope the link os fixed now. Thanks to for you kind comment. Jim

09 February, 2008 21:41  

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