Master photographer Roy DeCarava died last month. It took a while for me to find the photo of his that turned my world around, but here it is, as part of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s 1983 catalog for his one man show of jazz photographs that introduced me to his eye. Getting to meet Roy and Sherry DeCarava became a great bonus in my life.
Roy chronicled the New York African American experience with an unparalleled voice, as just a glance at any of his (currently out of print) monographs or a Google Image search clearly shows.
I was always interested in photography, but music had taken its place for more than 20 years in my life, when my photographer sister invited me to a show in 1983. I’d never been to the Studio Museum in Harlem, and had never heard of the photographer, but she didn’t ask often and it was great for us to spend some time together over a shared interest.
Immediately, this shot of John Coltrane hit me like a ball of lightning. For me, music photography had been an enlightening capture of a moment, a remembrance of a sound maybe I hadn’t heard. For the first time, in this kinetic image of Coltrane I felt the same way as when I listened. It was pure emotion, not a recording.
Obsessive I can sometimes be, and I tried in those pre-internet days to find out something about this man, an almost unknown jazz photographer. There was almost nothing, a few references to some out of print books. No one at any galleries I visited seemed to know anything. How could it be someone so great was so poorly chronicled. Finally, I turned up a copy of a monograph, patiently waited for the mail, cracked it open and saw… not too much jazz. Or, more precisely, jazz as it really was, a small part of the day to day experience of African Americans in the 1950s and 60s.
Photo of Roy DeCarava by Mitsu Yasukawa for the Los Angeles Times
For five years I hoped to learn more, and somehow or other, found that Roy lived in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. In the process, I’d become friendly (and obsessed) with other jazz photographers like William Claxton who only had reverence for Roy’s work. I wrote and called repeatedly, mentioning my interest in helping getting the jazz photographs published in a book (even if I had to do it myself) and after months of quiet rejection, got an invitation to the DeCarava’s home. I found an artist and a scholar, proud of their accomplishments and their family, protective of Roy’s work, willing to entertain any ideas that could help spread the legacy in a way they felt appropriate. Declining the traditional methods of promotion and distribution they felt the photographs represented a great body of work that needed to be exposed in just the right way. Roy taught master printing at Hunter College in New York (who better? Check out his tones that often start at 60% gray) and could wait until his wishes were properly followed.
I wasn’t able to be helpful, spirited amateur that I was, but we stayed in touch sporadically over the years. I brought my wife to San Francisco for the traveling show curated by the Museum of Modern Art. We spoke last month on the phone, he sounded great.
Listen to Roy himself, interviewed by Charlie Rose, on the occasion of his Museum of Modern Art retrospective.
By the way, Roy’s jazz work was finally released with exactly the vision he saw for it. The museum catalog was named the same, but was just a hint of what was to be The Sound I Saw, published by the Phaidon Press. Whatever you think of jazz, buy it. It sounds just right.