Roy DeCarava’s life and work has been noted by every source that should be seen to care following his recent passing.

There’s no doubt, DeCarava was a photographic great, a pioneer and a fine craftsman … but he had barely registered on my own personal radar. Until I found the story below courtesy of Dawoud Bey, I did not intend to comment upon DeCarava’s death. It would be inappropriate: I didn’t know about his work when he lived, why should I put on a show of knowing when he died?

Bey says:

DeCarava is too often grouped within a kind of black photographic trinity, which usually includes James Van DerZee and Gordon Parks. Many years ago I myself made the mistake of naively calling DeCarava to ask if I might interview him for inclusion in an article that I was writing about Black photographers for American Arts magazine. Roy asked me who the other photographers were and bristled when I mentioned James Van DerZee. I tried to explain that my inclusion of Van DerZee had more to do with the historical reach I wanted for the article and that I was also including Anthony Barboza, and other younger black photographers. I can still hear Roy’s response ringing in my ears. In no uncertain terms he attempted to educate me and set me straight. “Listen, James Van DerZee was a studio photographer, making pictures of people in the neighborhood who paid him. His pictures are interesting for a whole different reason. That’s not what I do. If you want to do an article on them, do an article on them. If you want to do an article on me, then do an article on me. But you will not do an article on them and me. I’m not a commercial photographer. What does our work have to do with each other?”

Dawoud goes on:

Roy was right … He wanted me to understand the difference between his intentions and theirs and not to merely and carelessly group them together because of race, as often happens with black photographers, often finding themselves grouped together in conceptually dubious exhibitions in which the rubric of race is often the only unifying factor. It was Roy DeCarava who first gave me a healthy skepticism about these kinds of shows, given their often spotty scholarship and thematic diffusion.

I guess the lesson – for all things – is that one should only comment if the comment is vital, relevant and fair.

Thanks for sharing Dawoud.


Elsewhere, from a 1996 NPR interview, it was fascinating to hear DeCarava’s matter-of-fact memory and experience of serving in the US Army, “In those days there were two US Army’s. One Black, one White.”