Roy DeCarava, “Elvin Jones” (1961) (© 2019 Estate of Roy DeCarava; all rights reserved; all images courtesy David Zwirner)

If you’ve seen an image of a Black jazz musician, eyes closed, his head lost in rapture, face awash in sweat, his ebony skin almost becoming silhouette but for the coruscating light against the statuesque bones of his face and the monsoon over his brow, then you have seen Roy DeCarava’s photography. “Elvin Jones” (1961) is one of DeCarava’s best known images and tends to stand in as that rare kind of photography that blends together documentary, celebrity sightings, an introduction to the mysteries of jazz, and highly aestheticized depictions of the poetic structure of an urban world at night. Indeed, for most viewers the draw to the concurrently running shows at David Zwirner gallery, Light Break, and the sound i saw, might be the work contained in the latter show (which has the image of Jones), focused as it is on musicians in the Jazz scene. But the other show, Light Break, which offers much more to look at (100 prints versus 30 in the other show) also lets us look differently at DeCarava’s work.

Light Break is more documentary in focus and conveys DeCarava’s skill at perceiving arresting visual juxtapositions, such as “Man walking away from broom, Washington D.C.” (1975) which uses a series of concrete staircases and a gravely alcove with hard-looking benches to create a palpable contrast with the body of a man, swathed in the soft contours of his clothing. DeCarava makes it apparent that architecture that is meant to be used by humans can be rather inhumane. His perceptive formalism also shows up in “Sun and Shade (1952) where a child plays with a companion almost lost in the shadows, as if the light and the dark really do constitute very different realities. Then there’s “Graduation” (1949): here you get to see DeCarava as an insightful street photographer and sociologist as he observes a woman in full finery, carefully picking up her skirts to find her way across a sidewalk caught between an abandoned lot on one side and a heap of trash on the other. Many of the images in this show are fascinating in both formal and thematic terms, revealing a consciousness that is supple and keenly insightful.

Roy DeCarava, “Graduation” (1949) © 2019 Estate of Roy DeCarava; all rights reserved

In the sound i saw, part of the thrill — at least for me — lies in being able to recognize many of the jazz legends before looking to the captions. There’s Sara Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ornette Coleman, Lena Horne, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington (who I actually mistook for Cab Calloway). I can’t help but think about their music, how I was hipped to Sara Vaughan in my early 20s and couldn’t get enough of her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” wondering whether I would ever get old enough to understand that degree of jadedness, or how I spent six months listening to Miles Davis and Gil Evans’s Sketches of Spain every single day, because I had never heard anything like it, and felt like I needed time to really understand it. The portraits here are lovely, dramatic, and personal. They feel like they could only be made by someone these people knew well — well enough to let him get that close. These musicians carved themselves out of the darkness of obscurity and into the light of notoriety, and DeCarava documented their movement.

Roy DeCarava “Sarah Vaughn” [sic], (1956) silver gelatin print

But there is something like an elegy also at work here. The show reads like a look back over my shoulder at a culture that is fast fading out. There was a time when jazz was largely understood to be representative of the pulse of the modern city. You can tell because up until about the early 2000s, many soundtracks that accompanied films set in the city had this music. But now that beat more often is rendered in a hip-hop cadence. Even DeCarava’s shooting and printing style signify a bygone era: black and white, soft-focus, murky portraits which spoke to the essence of that then still developing art form. The music was at times wonderful but also strange. It was birthed in smoky bars, gin joints, and out of the way places, almost illicit and almost forbidden. And its practitioners were considered prophets and oracles, hierophants who needed interlocutors to help decipher what they had done. Perhaps hip-hop artists occupy a similar position these days, but the presentation, the swagger, the storytelling, and meanings, even the ways that the business of production and distribution is structured are all very different. This is not to imply judgment one way or the other, but merely to recognize that the jazz age has passed and so the beauty of this work is even more poignant than when it was first made.

Roy DeCarava, “Edna Smith, bassist” (1950) silver gelatin print

Light Break and the sound i saw continue at two locations of David Zwirner gallery (34 East 69th Stree, Upper East Side, Manhattan, and 533 West 19th Street, Chelsea) through October 26. Both exhibitions were curated by art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava, who is also Roy DeCarava’s widow.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

One reply on “An Elegy to Roy DeCarava’s Poignant Compositions”

  1. We’re gonna miss jazz. Hip-hop has a lot of energy. For me, jazz has so much more.

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