Images That Search Out The Poetry of Humanity

Roy DeCarava captures everyday life with an artist's sensibility

ROY DECARAVA strides triumphantly through the big glass doors of the Museum of Modern Art. Outside, on a two-story white banner, his name hangs over the sidewalk in bold red letters. Inside, a retrospective of his remarkable photographic career, spanning five decades, is about to open in a major New York museum.

Throughout his career, Mr. DeCarava has been esteemed inside photography circles as a master at portraying people and events in the flux and flow of everyday life. But in spite of early successes, including a highly acclaimed book with poet Langston Hughes, the broad public recognition that his work has long deserved has been elusive.

On this day, though, all is triumph. Later this evening, a gala reception will mark the official opening of the exhibit. Now, DeCarava has come to meet members of the press and talk about his work. As he walks through the exhibition with a reporter, he is brimming with satisfaction.

''This is all a little overwhelming,'' he admits in a soft, agreeably raspy voice. ''One dreams and thinks of possibilities - it's kind of awesome to me.''

DeCarava is one of the central figures of postwar American photography, and arguably the most important African-American photographer of this century. To identify him by race is not to qualify his accomplishments. It may, however, help explain why he is not better known.

''I was just in here looking at the show before we met,'' he says. ''The pictures look different than when I hold them in my hands. Like they've put on their best suit of clothes.''

The earliest of the show's 194 black-and-white photographs were taken in 1950 and the most recent in 1991. They reflect a career spent almost entirely in New York and reveal the range of DeCarava's subject matter - Harlem life, jazz, work and workers, street scenes, family. The exhibit follows a rough chronology, but intersperses earlier and later photographs to suggest variations on certain themes.

The first-floor exhibition space embraces a series of small interconnected galleries that separate the work by period, yet emphasize the continuity of the photographer's distinct esthetic. DeCarava's style includes traditional portrait and slice-of-life images, but it also presents an expressionistic, at times nearly surreal, side. The show's texture takes numerous quick turns, visually and emotionally. DeCarava is not always easy on the viewer, but his work is uniquely satisfying.

''I got started late,'' DeCarava says. He was nearly 30 when he took up photography, having been trained as a painter. He made pictures after his job as a commercial artist, where he accepted all the firm's drudge work, so as to save his creative energy for his photography. In 1958 he began working as a freelance editorial and advertising photographer, but maintained a strict separation between job and art. None of his assignment photographs are included in the retrospective. Since 1975, DeCarava has taught photography at Hunter College at the City University of New York.

The exhibit opens with the photographer's early pictures of life in Harlem, work he undertook in part with the support of a 1952 Guggenheim Fellowship. (DeCarava was the first African-American photographer to receive the prestigious grant.) These photographs, of people at work, at home, and at play, drew the attention of Langston Hughes, the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance some 30 years earlier. Hughes set the pictures to a fictional text, and produced the book ''The Sweet Flypaper of Life.''

DeCarava's warm but unsentimental portrayal of family life in Harlem came at a time when Americans were confronting race and racism. As a young black artist, DeCarava's vision could not have been more timely. Then, as now, however, DeCarava had little interest in documentary photography. Rather, he has always maintained the prerogatives of the artist.

''My response is more about myself - what am I feeling, what am I trying to say,'' he notes. Even those pictures that directly address social ills do so obliquely, usually glancing off the issue to explore esthetic and personal concerns.

Still, DeCarava is not, as no African-American could be, blind to racism. The most frequent response to the retrospective among his acquaintances has been, ''It's about time.'' It is notable that over the past four decades, while New York taste-makers have championed white photographers of the same caliber, DeCarava has had to look to smaller venues in this country and Europe for one-man exhibits.

When asked if he thought racism played a role in the long wait, he smiled a resigned smile, bowed his head, and answered matter-of-factly, ''Of course.'' There was no rancor in his voice, but neither was there apology for his answer.

''Race is the No. 1 problem in America,'' he says ''It's as big as the United States. It's bigger than the deficit, it's bigger than drugs.''

DeCarava laments the impulse to identify anyone by race. ''What has that got to do with what people do and who they are?'' he insists. ''The whole thing is a sham and a lie.''

And he rejects the notion of a ''black esthetic'' among artists. ''It doesn't matter whether they're white or black,'' he says. ''What matters is the humanity.''

Following the success of ''Sweet Flypaper,'' DeCarava photographed New York's jazz scene and made portraits of some of the music's biggest names, including Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane. His photographs show the musicians in the throes of art, committed to, as DeCarava puts it, ''something larger than themselves.''

The creative intensity of artists like Coltrane and Monk is a thing DeCarava also possesses. ''For me, art was never a luxury,'' he says. ''It's a vital part of the human condition. Being an artist helped me survive. My work saved my life.''

''I've tried to be selective in how I fight, when I fight,'' DeCarava says. ''If you spend all your life fighting, then they've got you. You can't experience the beauty of relationships between people.''

In DeCarava's art, this beauty is often expressed in small gestures - warmth, not celebration; affection, not passion. The single word that best describes his subject matter is ''familiarity.'' DeCarava is a poet of the familiar.

Seldom in American photography have there been such impressive images of the most common actions. Fathers holding babies. Women smiling. Couples dancing. Men strolling down a sidewalk.

This devotion to the familiar also leads DeCarava to make pictures of seemingly nothing at all - a murky hallway, a sidewalk, a chain-link fence - images made more inscrutable by DeCarava's prints, which emphasize shadow as much as light.

As photograph follows photograph in the exhibit, the integrity of DeCarava's art becomes clear. His images search out beauty and mystery where we look for them least, in the pedestrian, the mundane.

''Familiarity is about love,'' DeCarava says. ''The more you know someone [or something], the better you can love them.''

His devotion to the things he knows and loves - however common - may also explain the photographer's slow rise to the top. ''In a way, people turn away from love,'' he says. ''They fear it because it's the truth.''

DeCarava is a man content with himself. He has only one major artistic regret, that he never photographed saxophonist Charlie Parker. He surveyed the Museum of Modern Art exhibit and admitted it felt good.

''This is 50 years of my life,'' he said. ''I think my time was well spent.''

* ''Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective'' remains at the Museum of Modern Art through May 7. It travels to Chicago; Los Angeles; Andover, Mass.; St. Louis; Houston; San Francisco; Atlanta; and Washington.

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