LOS ANGELES — In one of Roy DeCarava’s portraits of Billie Holiday, the jazz singer is caught in a moment of intense feeling, somewhere between the rapture and melancholy that characterizes her music. Her face is faintly visible in the photograph, along with a jeweled teardrop earring to the bottom left of the frame. All else is obscured by shadow, as if this singular performance comprises a world of its own. In this photograph and others, DeCarava captures the intimacy between artists and their craft, framing public performance into something that feels like a private moment.
Over six decades, Roy DeCarava took to the streets of cities like New York City and Washington, DC to cast Black American lives in ways that went beyond documentary or stereotype. Roy DeCarava: The Work of Art at the Underground Museum brings together photographs of everyday intimacies between people, places, and objects. In addition to portraits of jazz musicians at work, interactions between children and adults as well as the contradictions and strangeness of city life are frequent themes of the exhibition.
A father’s hands hold up an infant child in “Bill and son” (1962), while a mother stoops down to eye level with her daughter who sits passenger side in a car in “Woman and girl at car window” (1979). In the latter image, the woman is dressed professionally and has a stack of papers in her lap as if she’s about to enter a job interview or business meeting. Whether she’s reproaching or comforting the child is uncertain, but the photograph portrays the woman performing two jobs at once — the obligations of parenthood and professional life.
In “Graduation” (1949), a young woman in a white dress walks through a New York City street, the formality of her appearance contrasting with the empty lot and trash heap that suggest the city’s neglect of the neighborhood. To the right of the frame, a billboard for a Chevrolet car in the background and broken carriage in the foreground seem to sandwich the scene with two visions of the city, the shiny modernity promised by the car ad undermined by the reality of a crumbling infrastructure. DeCarava was likely struck by the irony of a “Streets for people” sign, funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, when he snapped a photograph of a Washington, DC street in 1975. No people are visible in the photograph, only cars and windowless brick buildings at street level with skyscrapers and the obelisk peak of the Washington Monument looming over the scene.
In DeCarava’s photographs, the love and intimacy between Black people, alongside the inequality and alienation of cities, paint contrasting views of American life. While not overtly political, these works, when considered in context, point to or signify political injustices. “White helmet” from 1963 might resemble a simple object study, but the subject is immediately recognizable as the white helmet worn by police officers deployed to quell urban rebellions and civil rights protests during that period. The white helmet reappears in “Progressive Labor,” a snapshot of 334 Lenox Avenue taken in the year following the Harlem uprisings of 1964. A policeman stands patrol in front of a grocery store, located next to what appears to be an office of the left-wing Progressive Labor Party. As one man to the left stares warily at the police, an illustrated poster depicting police terrorism of Black people hangs above the storefront and mimics the reality at street level.
In spite of these realities, Black American life as it appears in Roy DeCarava’s photographs are full of beauty and mystery. A photograph from 1950 captures another musician at work, this time a performance by bassist Edna Smith. Her left hand holds a note on the upright bass, her serene and meditative expression lit by a soft glow. The sounds from that evening and what she’s thinking or feeling are likely lost to time. Details on the bass player’s life are also scant, unlike those of DeCarava’s other subjects, like John Coltrane. But here in this image, she’s not just playing the rhythm section but is the star of the moment, one of many famous and unknown jazz players who performed in the clubs of DeCarava’s mid-century Harlem.
Roy DeCarava: The Work of Art continues at the Underground Museum (3508 West Washington Boulevard, Arlington Heights, Los Angeles) through June 30.