When I think of Harlem, I see a neighborhood that’s defined by its past while struggling to shape its future. The tension between Harlem’s rich, complex history and the persistent threat of cultural erasure has created an imperative for current work that draws on Harlem’s enduring artistic legacy while pushing new boundaries. Photographers like Roy DeCarava created a visual language around Harlem life in the 1950s that centered on the beauty of the people within the community. In the decades since, DeCarava’s work has become a visual point of departure for directors including Barry Jenkins and Kahlil Joseph, who take visual cues from DeCarava’s oeuvre and engage them in new ways.
In the film If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins adapts James Baldwin’s tale of love and injustice, diving deep into the story of a young couple living in 1970s Harlem. Kahlil Joseph uses montage in his latest video Fly Paper to take viewers on a manic exploration of memory using the sights and sounds of modern-day Harlem. Its title is an homage to DeCarava, whose artistic influence is echoed in Jenkins’s and Joseph’s work through their use of emotive portraiture and captivating storytelling. DeCarava’s seminal work, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, transformed image into prose in a book that introduced readers to 1950s Harlem through the thoughtful words of Langston Hughes. After 35 years the work has been re-issued by David Zwirner Books, introducing a new generation to this special collaboration. These three works, as different as they are, tell an inter-generational saga of Harlem life that pay tribute to the community through stunning portraits.
Roy DeCarava’s black and white photos have a contemplative stillness about them, even as the energy of the city swirls around his subjects. He transforms otherwise mundane moments into intriguing narratives with beguiling characters, extracting drama from solitude like no other. In the book, Langston Hughes brings the photos to life, fluidly weaving them together through the stories of a character named Sister Mary Bradley. Using DeCarava’s pictures as her guide, she drifts through the streets of Harlem, spilling secrets and sharing words of wisdom about the neighborhood she calls home.
Throughout the book, she expresses concern over her favorite grandson Rodney, who’s a young father struggling to find his way into adulthood. Pain, fear, loneliness, and abandonment become crystallized in an image of a young boy standing on a street corner on a hot summer’s day — a closely cropped photo of the child reveals a furrowed brow and the steely gaze of someone with too much on his mind for such a young age. In that moment, he becomes a visual substitute for Rodney’s own son, and suddenly his story becomes more legible.
Sister Mary’s concern over her troubled grandchild is tempered by images of tender family moments around the kitchen table, where folks are laughing, dancing, and finding solace in each other’s company. DeCarava toggles between merriment and despair, with the precise timing of an observant eye and the intimacy of a perceptive heart. The synchronicity between DeCarava’s photographs and Hughes’ prose created a mosaic of Harlem life that reveals humanity, grace, and vulnerability.
“The world is like a crossword puzzle in the Daily News — some folks make the puzzles, others try to solve them.” (Hughes, p.41)
Sister Mary’s words feel like the prologue to James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk, an intense exploration of love through the eyes of a 22-year-old sculptor named Fonny and 19-year-old Tish. The young Harlem couple’s lives are upended when news of a pregnancy collides with a rape allegation that lands Fonny in jail. Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins’ adaptation brings Baldwin’s story to life using a visual language that’s steeped in his photographic forebears, Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava. In the film, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton opt for close crops in portraits that draw you into the love the characters have for each other and for the people in their lives.
The film is a slow burn that keeps viewers engaged through masterful scenes like one between Fonny and an old childhood friend Daniel, who reunite after a chance meeting in the street. As the two reminisce in Fonny’s art studio over beer and cigarettes, their revelry is interrupted by the ghosts of Daniel’s past. Laxton slow pans between the two characters as they take long drags off their cigarettes while trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. As they talk, the low, haunting bellows of a single cello note loom ominously in the background, foreshadowing Fonny’s bleak fate. As the music abruptly halts, Tish breaks the silent tension by attempting to interject light into an otherwise dark moment, and as in The Sweet Flypaper of Life, the trio finds solace in being in each other’s presence, sitting around the kitchen table enjoying a meal. The scene brilliantly collapses joy, pain, memory, and hope into a single moment.
Barry Jenkins opens If Beale Street Could Talk with a series of quotes by James Baldwin. One of the quotes refers to Beale Street as a LOUD street, an observation that brought Kahlil Joseph’s work to mind. His latest video takes this metaphorical baton of sound and runs with it, also employing DeCarava and Hughes’s narrative innovation in a piece aptly named, Fly Paper.
The video installation, which is currently on view at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, takes visitors on a visual and sonic journey through Harlem using the artist’s personal, archival footage, which is spliced with fast moving imagery, slow-paced vignettes, and powerful performances that capture the energy of New York City. Throughout the video, works of art by Simone Leigh, Kevin Beasley, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Barkley Hendricks appear on screen as a nod to the Black artistic voices in contemporary art today.
Joseph is light on narrative cues, but he draws on creative collaboration in the manner of Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes, and uses text to set the tone for the piece. In the video, Joseph fuses image and prose using a female narrator who quotes lines from Chris Marker’s 1983 documentary called Sans Soleil:
“After so many stories of men who had lost their memory, here is the story of one who has lost forgetting.”
The narration accompanies the quiet, solitary moments of an elderly dancer, played by Broadway actor Ben Vereen, who slowly walks through city streets, his apartment building, and museum galleries. These serene moments are quickly interrupted by flashes of disjointed memories that manically flood the screen as Ben Vereen dances through the visions in his head with dancer Storyboard P, who looms nearby as a shadowy apparition of Vereen’s younger self. The two perform a modern pas de deux, dancing to the loud, hypnotic, dreamlike rhythms of Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Kelsey Lu, and Alice Smith.
Kahlil Joseph draws on the associations we make between our memories and music. He uses hyper-amplified sounds like the flick of a lighter and the click of a cane slowly coming into contact with cold linoleum, which pierce through the ambient rumblings of the city. As Joseph’s father and brother appear on the screen (both have passed away in recent years), the artist’s attachment to those amplified sounds as triggers of memory become more vivid.
“My blues ain’t pretty
My blues don’t satisfy
But they can roll like thunder
In a rocky sky. Sometimes when I’m singing, I remembers my youth-hood” (Hughes, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, p.45)
DeCarava, Hughes, and Baldwin created timeless stories that capture the beautiful complexities of life and the memories that were built into the foundations of the community. These works inspired a new generation of artists who fuse storytelling with imagery, creating their own visual language that’s rooted in the past and resonates in the present. We’re in a special moment where we can enjoy these three works simultaneously, in dialogue with each other, extending Harlem’s own story. The deep well of current artistic talent will continue to play a vital role in how Harlem defines its future.