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Light Break: Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Book Review Light Break Photographs by Roy DeCarava Reviewed by Blake Andrews Light Break presents the first survey since 1996 of photographer Roy DeCarava, an essential figure of American art and culture, whose “poetry of vision” re-forms urban life, labor, love, and jazz into the discovery of “an intimate, emotional arc of transformation.”
Light Break. By Roy DeCarava.
Light Break  
Photographs by Roy DeCarava

David Zwirner Books, New York, 2019. In English. 228 pp., black-and-white illustrations, 9¾x11½x1".

Did Roy DeCarava forecast the future?

Certainly his photographs express the wisdom of a seer. That much has been established. But I mean something more than that. Browsing his posthumous retrospective Light Break this past week, his photographs have taken on a new dimension for me. DeCarava’s world has always been dark, empty, and somber. But in recent weeks the social landscape has caught up to him. The Coronavirus pandemic transformed public life overnight. Stroll through just about any downtown in America and you’ll find shuttered shops and vacant streets — the effects of social distancing. Unwittingly or not, DeCarava’s mid-century oeuvre is now the zeitgeist.

Wall Street, Morning. By Roy DeCarava.
Look, for example, at the second photo. It’s a vertical frame of New York’s Wall Street. But this isn’t the frantic rush of businessmen typically identified with the financial hub. DeCarava’s Wall Street is an empty lane receding into white sky in the frame’s upper right. Or consider the photo a few pages further, two men walking a park path in 1959. They’re several meters apart, walking in step, each man isolated in his own world. One couldn’t script a better model of social distancing. A later photo, picturing two commuters at the base of a subway stairway in 1954, drives the point home. They face apart, safe from contagion at roughly 3 meters. They may be joined in circumstance but in all other ways they’re alone.

DeCarava seemed to see isolation wherever he looked. When he shot people —a majority of the hundred photos presented— he tended to box them up into private worlds. Rarely do his subjects interact with or even acknowledge others in the same photo. Musicians were a favorite subject, perhaps a dozen of them appear in Light Break (many more are collected in The Sound I Saw, published concurrently). Under DeCarava’s gaze, all turn their attention inward. A photo of Percy Heath in 1957 is typical. His fingers are the star attraction, caterpillaring up the fretboard. Heath’s blurred face barely registers in the background. As for the rest of the world, it may not exist.

Graduation. By Roy DeCarava. 

DeCarava shot unpopulated scenes too, and not just Wall Street. A 1947 photograph of sunlight on the Hudson River makes for a pleasant visual rest, as does a string of natural scenes several pages —and several decades— later. Trees, hills, water, swing sets: he paid attention to everything, but especially people. Regardless of subject, the unifying trait was his distinctive palette, which pushed tones deep into the inky lower registers.

Pepsi. By Roy DeCarava.
The result is an oeuvre that appears like dense sculpture, with small grey flecks carved from ebony blocks. Richard B. Woodward described DeCarava’s darkness as “so enveloping that [people] risk being swallowed up and rendered void.” Yikes.

Peering into DeCarava’s shadows in Light Break, one might need a moment to let their eyes adjust. Once acclimated, with pupils wide, viewers are duly rewarded with a rush of rich detail, printed masterfully.

Brooding scenes of isolation are a fitting testament to the (hopefully brief) era of Coronavirus. But in DeCarava’s era they hinted at something much broader. For a black man in 1950s America, social distancing was not a health edict. It was a fact of daily life. Segregation was very real. Is it any wonder DeCarava sought affinity in the alienated?

Although the photos in Light Break are not explicitly political, they have an almost physical weight, and it’s not hard to imbue them with a civil rights undercurrent. DeCarava’s wife Sherry Turner DeCarava might agree. It was she who curated the image selection —mostly previously unseen works— and wrote the book’s extensive introduction. Hers is the first retrospective treatment of Roy DeCarava in 25 years. It comes along at an opportune time. A scary moment in history, but hopefully a teachable one.

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Four Bassists. By Roy DeCarava.
Man Lying on Park Bench, Bangkok. By Roy DeCarava.

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at