The activity to which Roy DeCarava devoted himself at the beginning of his artistic career in the 1930s and 1940s was as a painter and printmaker, with brilliant studies and an honors degree in 1938, to be followed by courses taken the Harlem Community Art Center (1940-1942) and the George Washington Carver Art School (1944-1945).
Vincent van Gogh and Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros were influencing DeCarava’s work, while a need arose within him to continue gathering visual information for his paintings. In the mid-1940s, the 35mm he used to shoot with became the only tool that helped him represent reality, particularly that of his neighborhood, Harlem, with a freedom that painting did not allow him.
The flexibility of photography soon became the perfect tool to carry out that role as a walking observer, in the wake of great masters of that time such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, with a more pronounced inclination to understand his relationship with the subjects he photographed in the New York neighborhood than to compose a social documentary.
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In 1950 Roy DeCarava made his debut, with a solo exhibition that would lead to his becoming the first African American photographer to win the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. Harlem continued to be the focus of his photographic research, which resulted in those years in The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a photopoetic work featuring images of the neighborhood combined with narration by poet Langston Hughes. Thus was born one of the great classics of American visual literature.
In the years that followed, the context of Harlem became increasingly central, and DeCarava’s proximity to the violent consequences that racial discrimination can bring meant that the photographer created an ever-stronger connection to Harlem. The battles of the African American community led by Martin Luther King Jr. would be a recurring subject of his production in those years, and the shot he took of Malcolm X would soon enter the history of photography.
Roy DeCarava’s work has resurfaced these days after Supreme chose to use the very 1964 portrait of Malcolm X for its latest release. The shot appears on tees and hoodies from the Manhattan-born brand, but which has always had close ties to the black community. Proceeds from the collection (released May 19 at 11 a.m. EDT) will in fact be donated to the Schomberg Center Research in Black Culture in Harlem.