An interview with Roy DeCarava by Dread Scott
In February, 1996 a major retrospective of Roy DeCarava's work had just opened at the Museum of Modern Art. DeCarava has been making photographs for almost fifty years. He is one of those rare artists who is a true master of his craft. His art is about people and the world we live in. Although he received a Guggenheim Fellowship four decades ago has collaborated with Langston Hughes, and has work in significant collections, it is only now that he is starting to get the recognition he so richly deserves.
Could you briefly go into how you got from, well as early as you want, to the present?
Well, I started out loving learning. I went through the New York public school system and I did a lot of drawing, some later as I got into the classes. There was always a lot of art, even in kindergarten, so that I was always involved in making images one way or another, as a child, in high school, then after high school, Cooper Union, and that's been the story of my life. Everything else, well it doesn't bear too much relevance to what I do, in the sense that times are always hard. Manifesting who you are is difficult whether it's hard out there or not. At some point I decided that this relationship to art was the way for me because it made me feel most comfortable. Much of my decision was a reaction to the world as I saw it. Art provided me with another kind of forum or relation. Then after a while, of course, the value of art in itself began to take hold in a positive viable way. Art is really a fundamental activity. That justifies or in a way explains this interest in it. Every human being has a history. It's very hard to interpret from that history, why or what they do. We're all shaped by our experiences and of course in some areas it helps to know how one became that way. But essentially, it's what people do that really counts. So I like to talk about photography. I don't like to talk about my history. At the MOMA press opening you said that "Art is essential, it's a form of human communication, that what artists do is a vital part of being alive."
I think that human beings are essentially social. Not even essentially, absolutely social, in the sense that it takes more than one for a society to exist. And as long as there's more than one, there's social interaction between those two people. But whether it's one or two, or thousands, or millions, if we don't communicate we can't learn from the experience of the past or the experience of the present. Suppose I don't know how to hunt, who's going to teach me? I can learn by myself, but it'll take a long time, and I might just get killed by the prey before I learn. So if I talk to this hunter who's just come home, with a bag of whatever, and I ask him how he did it, and he tells me, that means I don't have to go through that other process. But how is he going to tell me? Is he going to make art?
I know that the word communication has a connotation of utmost utilitarianism, but if you think of communication in the real sense of the word, and that is, an exchange between two people, this makes sense. Human beings talk, not only with the tongue, they talk with the body in their actions, their moves, and maybe they talk with electromagnetic waves. So you don't know what the nature of the communication is exactly, but the point is that there's an exchange. Art is the ultimate in communication because art aspires to be the absolute only consideration, and therefore as pure, as pristine and as valuable as possible. There are all kinds of symbols that people create with art. You don't have to know the specific language. The only language you have to know is vision through your eyes, or sound through your ears, or physicality by touch. Of course I'm leaving out writing, but I just mean the physical properties of a given fixed symbol, as opposed to more or less freedom of the artistic symbol, which varies from time to time, not only from person to person, but within the person himself. Artists change symbols with the abstract forms they use to express given ideas. Did you say earlier that you didn't like the world as you saw it? Well let's put it this way; let's be accurate: at that age, I didn't know what it was like except that it was wonderment, or ignorance. Not knowing can be a strong feeling akin to not liking. The fact of actually not knowing can be unpleasant. You stated in the catalog from the show, "My photographs are subjective and personal, they're intended to be accessible, to relate to peoples' lives. People, their well-being and survival are the crux of what's important to me."; Beyond just the question of communication, I think there's been a spirit within your work of a real intense caring about people, and the world that you live in. Yes, that's very much a part of what I do. My work is propelled by a belief system, which is very strong and it propels me to get through difficulties to the things that I think are important. I happen to believe that one's sense of belief has a lot to do with how one functions and what one does. By belief I don't mean indefinable belief, or mythological, but normal belief, the belief that a person has, and the person himself might not even be aware of, or fully cognizant of it. The more things of value a belief system has, the more weight it has, the closer to the truth it is, the stronger it is. One of the strongest values we have is this democratic ideal, for want of a better word, of the value of the many, the value that the will or the goodness of the majority is important, even more important than the individual. I believe that, and I believe it not because somebody told me, but because somewhere in my mind I thought about it, and I realized that the collective unconscious, for one thing, is much more profound than one individual. So I don't have any problem about being second place, because that's what we are talking about. Either you think of yourself as the beginning and end of all things, or there is a greater something which you are part of. I'm another individual who has the potential of doing any number of things, in a lifetime that adds to the collective intelligence of our species. From any civilization we learn essentially about its values through the products which survive. The products that it values and that survive are its art. Art is the highest form that a civilization can attain; and it uses art to define itself. If you work on something over a long period of time, and you put everything you've got into it, you do it for a reason; because what you've done defines your whole sense of value, what you think, what is important, what you are, and somebody else coming and seeing it can also draw those conclusions.What it is really about is: ramifications of the self within the whole, and one's contribution to the whole, and therefore ones contribution to the self. One thing I was very interested in as a young artist when I first saw your work was that you showed people that often weren't depicted at all, and you showed them not as victims. You showed the oppression that they face, but you didn't show them as victims or helpless or broken, you showed people in full complexity, you know, as people who experience sadness and joy and strength and anger and love and you didn't shy away from anything in talking about this. That's exactly what I was trying to do. With one exception. Ordinarily I am among my friends. I don't think of them as being Black; they're friends until somebody else tells you they're Black. So it's very difficult for us to discourse, without getting involved in the racial war, and the war affects us even internally. When I photograph people, even when I alluded to their Blackness, and the best part of their heritage I was looking at people as human beings, I was, looking at them at the stage before they were called Black. The color of one's skin has been used as a device ever since it was discovered, to confuse us, to demean; and when I say us, I'm talking about EVERYBODY. It's a sickness that touches us all, and I think we have to be careful that we don't embrace it. My militancy was always curbed by a sense of, 'Well, yes, it's important that I know this, but it's more important that I do this -- that I resist.' So that kept me quite political, in the soldier sense: committed to social change. There isn't anything that isn't political. How does that affect your work? It makes me feel like embracing the underdog. We were very poor, short of being on the street or without a home; and the funny thing, in those days, there were not any homeless. This country has become similar to India with begging on the street, the Untouchables; we're not too far from that. What I wanted to do was to give people a reason for being alive, a reason to feel good about themselves. And that's very deliberate on my part. More deliberate than the question of race. I mean that. Part of our problem today is there's no hope -- I know about that, I see it before my eyes everyday. I've lived here 25 years and I've watched kids grow up and its devastating. They're not dead but some are near it; they're walking zombies, and these are teenagers, young kids. When I work, I want to show them what's beautiful. I know there are ugly things out there and they know too. What they don't know is that they can be free, at least within the context of their own minds, and that they can do what they believe in their minds. That's a form of freedom. I made a choice not to get caught in the meanness; I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the possibilities. Your pictures are not just pretty pictures, they help people feel good but you can also sometimes show a very difficult reality. No, its not about pretty pictures, because it's not about pretty. It's about truth. And truth is a many splendored thing -- a multi-faceted thing. It doesn't have to be pretty to be true, but if its true it's beautiful. Truth is beautiful. And so my whole work is about what amounts to a reverence for life itself. One of my favorite pictures of yours is called Five Men. I saw that picture about eight years ago, and I've had it in my mind ever since. Until I read the current MOMA catalog I didn't know it was a picture of people coming out of a funeral after the Birmingham bombing where five young Black children were killed. I bring that up because you say we don't have to fight. I didn't know what that picture was about, but the men in that picture were both very sad, very angry and very determined, and once I found out what it was a picture of, it was even more stunning. You see, they're determined, and they're angry and they're sad, and they're beautiful. Is there anything else? Their determination is not defined, and it doesn't have to be defined unless you define it. A few minutes ago you were talking about people who are homeless today and how this is different from when you were growing up. How have the times affected your work? It's affected me in that I'm not surrounded by the same kind of people that I was surrounded by when I was coming up. People had hopes and there was a certain discipline to life. There were certain things that you were not supposed to do and you didn't do them. And there were things you were supposed to do and you did them. Today that discipline is not there. There is a self indulgence, as though Armageddon is tomorrow, let me live today. But not so noble. This makes it hard for me to see the things I want to see. That's one side. But the other side is that I've grown, I've changed. And I no longer look for the same things. I know what's out there, but I have to go on. There are still many things I don't know, and I have to learn more and experience more. Those are the unknowns. This is the way my work is going. I don't know what to photograph, but it doesn't bother me the way it would have because I know whatever it is, it's out there. And I know I'll get to it. We're looking for truth and truth is living, so we find truth in living. So that's what helps me make pictures now, not the given and the known, but really the unknown. I don't know where I'm going, but I'm going! In the early sixties, you had pictures of various people in the Civil Rights movement and in the fifties you were in Harlem, you did jazz and bebop, which was a very powerful part of the times. It was part of my lifestyle, and how I was living determined the photographs that I took. If I were in the house of a friend's family, I was taking pictures. If I went to a nightclub I was taking pictures. So it wasn't 'I'm going to pursue jazz, I'm going to pursue families.' It was from a kind of total consciousness. You've got your pulse very much on things that are of interest or value to people at a particular moment before they may even understand that. I noticed at the exhibit, that in 1986-87 you started taking pictures of homeless people. It was just at that time that they were first becoming a big question. My earliest picture of that was in 1949; I took music before and after the '60s. There are times, when things are so classic and so strong, that one just can't let it alone and then it reverts to a bygone sense of perception or, way of doing things. The subject could be a political statement, an obvious political subject, but I couldn't resist it. Those pictures had all the other things that were important to me as an artist and as a human being -- it's there in a man sleeping in a box in the park. I'm searching for beauty and I'm searching for truth, and to me, the two are really one and the same thing, truth is beautiful; I don't mean in a literal sense, I mean in the sense of a perception of perfection. There are images that come to me like that no matter what their subject. You have an art background, how does this affect your approach to photography? Absolutely, oh it affects me 100%. When I gave up one process -- painting -- I never gave up art; I simply changed brushes, as though I went from a piano to a guitar. It was still about making music, so that, when I decided to go into photography, I went in with all my existing knowledge about art. I consciously said to myself, 'I'm not changing much, just the process, I like this process better than the one I was using'. But my fundamental thinking hadn't changed. Time had to be spent to increase my knowledge and master another set of symbols, another set of procedures, but I still had the old ones. And the old ones applied to the new process. Do you think people who were brought up just as photographers approach photography differently from you? Yes and unfortunately this tends to stagnate the discourse in the photographic community. There is not much meaningful discussion about photography: it's always about the process or about the subject. It rarely goes into any of the things that we've touched on in this exchange. I constantly look for signs, that somebody is out there thinking pictures -- or that somebody out there is feeling. You've said you were influenced by Van Gogh, Orozco, Edward Hopper, and also that you knew various people who were active in Harlem in the '40s and '50s, including Langston Hughes, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, people like that. Could you talk about the influence those artists and writers had on you?
Well, I think I was influenced the most by Langston because I knew him as a friend, and as an artist. I was attracted to him because of his writing and I trusted my work with him. Van Gogh was important to me and still is to this day. I tend to like those artists who are emotionally involved -- who had an intensity and had visible humanitarian perceptions. There's a woman that I frequently mention, and that's Käthe Kollwitz. Käthe Kollwitz was brilliant!
Marvelous. That's almost all she ever did, was to draw. Have you seen the ones in the Public Library? No I haven't. I didn't know they had any. Original prints?
Yes, big original lithographs, all you've got to do is go up to the main library on 42nd street. There's a whole portfolio of them. I first saw her in a book, and I loved her work, it is just beautiful. Now Orozco -- his intensity is more internal almost like a burning inside rather than a burning outside. I was also influenced a great deal by the written word. Which authors?
Well, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx, Lenin. Hegel and Lenin's dialectics. And also Nietzsche from whom I got a concept -- not of the evil, but of the will, the idea of the will. I think what he did was show me the importance that the will can have. In the list of people that you've spoken there aren't any photographers.
There was one. I regarded Henri Cartier-Bresson well. I liked him because he had this combination of humanness and a lyrical sense, a kind of poetic vision, if you will, which, I think, he eventually lost. But in the beginning that was what moved me a good deal. I also like some of the early photographers -- but there are very few that I can take en masse. I find that the greatness is slight. Even in the photographers that are supposed to be "great", you get past the first few dozen pictures, and you're in no- mans land. It's difficult to make good photographs. I like Ansel Adams. I like -- is it Brassaï? Yes, Brassaï's pictures. I like Salomon, an early German. but my really important influences were primarily painters.
You print very dark in much of your work. I really enjoy this aesthetic you've developed, but why do you print like this?
I happen to believe that photography is not about black and white; it's about grays. If you think about black and white, you can be satisfied with woodcuts, etchings and engravings, since they're all black and white. The fact that they are put together with thin lines to make a gray is not the same thing as a gray in a photographic scale. A photographic scale has no edge; it's a smooth transition from white to black, and it's certainly not digitized. The standards that have been set for photography are essentially standards that the manufacturer imposed on the process. And it was the manufacturers who said that a negative has to be a certain way, has to have this, that, and the other to be viable, but I don't believe in that. I believe that what I say is correct, and when I want a picture, I don't care how dark it is. I believe that if I feel something, and I have my camera, I should try to capture it. Even if I have to hold the camera still for two minutes, I will try. Also, you have to understand that the places that I go were not lit for TV They were lit for economic reasons, or for visual reasons. In the homes that I visited, electric light was important, and expensive: with one family I photographed, the lights were turned off. The only way I could get a photo was to use flash, and so I used flash, with bounce strobe all throughout the interior. Looking at the picture, you don't know that that's what it is, but that's what it was. So I don't ever allow the process to limit me. When it comes down to it, I love looking at those dark tones and the grays. It's so sensuous to me. There's a point when you're printing a photograph, and one minute it looks dark and then one minute more it looks dead, another two seconds it's alive again -- the same photograph. One is exposed for 8 seconds and one for 10 seconds, or 8 1/2 seconds, but this one looks right, correct! But this one looks alive even though you see less! Why is that? I don't know. But I'm certainly not going to throw it away: that's the way I judge.