Radiant Poetic Shadows: Roy DeCarava at the Underground Museum

Roy DeCarava: The Work of Art, at The Underground Museum (through June 30)
Reviewed by Henry Cherry

Despite a couple of career retrospectives and a small handful of books, the late photographer Roy DeCarava is one of the most overlooked photographers of his era. His photos are among the few photographic equivalents to sound. Somehow, in spite of this majesty, his obscurity persists. But this spring, across Los Angeles, his work is being well served. DeCarava is represented by 21 photographs in the Broad Museum’s Soul of a Nation show, where the late photographer is one of many voices. While several of his disciples are part of the Annenberg Space for Photography’s Contact High show dedicated to the documentation of hip hop, it is the Underground Museum’s Roy DeCarava: The Work of Art, on view until June 30th 2019, where DeCarava gets the best chance to imprint his genius upon the next generation. The first thing that becomes apparent upon entrance toThe Work of Art is the dim lighting scheme. The presentation is likely in accordance with the photographer’s fastidious regard to how his work should be presented and perceived. It is a careful detail that extols both the intimacy of the museum and the expertise found within.

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Roy DeCarava Four bassists (1965).
All images courtesy of The Underground Museum and the Estate of Roy DeCarava

The Underground Museum is an anomaly in the celebrity-studded kinesis of the Angeleno art world. Occupying several linked storefronts in the Arlington Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, the space comes across as a haven of replenishment rather than a beacon for the see-and-be-seen. That’s intentional. The museum was birthed by late artist Noah Davis and his wife in 2012. Sadly, Davis was struck down by cancer three years later at the age of 32. Over the span of his career, Davis connected with some of DeCarava’s instincts, singling out figures and angles and framing them similarly to the late photographer. Davis plotted the imagery of his paintings across his community much the same way DeCarava did with his photography. Not wholly content with creating art, Davis sought to expand the community that nourished his family by making art accessible to it. While undergoing chemotherapy, Davis created the 18 shows that put the museum on the map, engaging both his neighbors and the rest of the city.

Davis’s widow, Karon, outlined the museum’s mission in a short video featured on Youtube that was filmed a year after her husband’s death. “Noah really wanted people in the neighborhood to see that you don’t have to have a million dollars to have beautiful art,” she says in the clip from beneath the shade of a purple parasol. “You can take something mundane and make it beautiful.” While the Underground Museum has blossomed into something larger than the community it serves, it remains an inclusive oasis in Los Angeles’s desert of exclusivity. No wonder The Work of Art feels so particularly suited to the space.

Writing in the New York Times in early 80s, critic Andy Grundberg noted that the photographer’s anonymous reputation outside of photography might be ascribed to race. “Because DeCarava is black and the photography world is overwhelmingly white, it is tempting to consider this peculiar state of affairs as . . . evidence of racial discrimination in the art world, or at least as evidence of an insidious tokenism at work. [. . .] But DeCarava’s insider/outsider status is a consequence of the nature of his work, of his very stance as an artist.” Grundberg is right. DeCarava’s creative identity imbued his career with some anonymity, though it’s certain that the overwhelming whiteness of photography also cloaked the African American’s work.

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Catsup bottles, table and coat (1952)

In 1996, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art created its retrospective for DeCarava. the photo world still flushed from Mapplethorpe’s daring and disobedient nudes. David LaChapelle was jumpstarting the blaring oversaturated carnival that first made him famous while a legion of young photogs, including Martha Cooper and Janette Beckman, focused their lenses on graffiti artists and hip hoppers, much as DeCarava and Chuck Stewart had done when jazz reigned supreme. Planted beside the rambunctious youth and carnality of those next wave photogs, it’s not hard to understand why, at the time of his retrospective, reviewers in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times described the photographer’s work as “quiet.”

The Underground Museum’s show is anything but. They may have dimmed the gallery lights, but this is a riot of jazzers, protesters, and architectural force. Angles and light vie for center stage with famous musicians and unknown passersby, and DeCarava covers the gamut with fundamental equanimity and strength. No one is wilting. Even with the color drained to greyscale, DeCarava’s photography is more boisterous than the color work of his successors.

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Billie Holiday With Earring, 1960
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Edna Smith, bassist (1950)

Initially a painter, DeCarava was a product of New York public schools and received a scholarship to Cooper Union, where he studied until animosity from white students drove him to drop out. He then studied under painter Charles White, whose retrospective is currently on view at LACMA. The Work of Art, while different in scale than White’s presentation across town, does connect to the photographer’s painterly background. The imaginative framing affixes to his time studying with White. A wide lens shot of a hallway distorts the edges of its walls the very way the painter Pierre Bonnard sometimes exaggerated them. A girl’s white dress viscerally punctuates the decaying metropolitan landscape she’s immersed in, achieving the same urgent defiance that Banksy’s stencil work searches out.

Though DeCarava movingly documented the African American community where he lived after winning a Guggenheim fellowship to do just that, it was a tag that lingered as a professional designation well after his artistic interest shifted. During the MOMA retrospective, he spoke with interviewer Charlie Rose about why he photographed what he photographed. “It’s not the subject that interests me. It’s my perception of the subject,” DeCarava told the now deposed Rose. “It’s the process of taking what is and making it yours.”

The Work of Art spreads across four rooms. As the visitor acclimates to the dimness, the photographs begin to radiate a bounty of shadow and depth. In the midst of the battle for Civil Rights, several of them lead away from that segregated anger toward the incandescence of community. DeCarava’s complete reliance on available lighting becomes a jingoism of glimmers. Images usher movement from a sliver of implication in one image, while another brings mobility from a snatched halo of blur. It’s a marvel of artistic vision, escorting what some would perceive as a technical error into an aesthetic victory. That’s a dominant factor in the show. The collection bears witness to his observational dexterity as it swirls from a dreamy hallway lit by a wraithlike dome of light to the authoritarian white dome of a helmet. The show was curated by Wendy DeCarava, the photographer’s daughter, and her encyclopedic knowledge of these photographs informs and paces the show as it passes room to room, image to image.

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Elvin Jones (1961)

A room on the far right of the museum is the show’s most striking. Nine photographs are attached to three walls, with an austere wooden bench set lengthwise before them. The photographs span the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. A woman speaks on a street corner. A cinder block wall is topped with barbed wire. Another woman is surrounded by police officers. A black wrought iron fence is presented in portrait. Demonstrators assemble in a hodgepodge of angles and bunched-up hair of two young women. After looking at the rest of the show, many will likely be drawn back to this room and the smoldering poetry contained within.

This review would be remiss without a mention of DeCarava’s jazz images. They are best represented by two photographs. In one, a heavily shadowed, drummer Elvin Jones fills the frame, drenched in sweat. The other features a slightly fuzzy John Coltrane appearing lost in thought just moments before taking the stage at the Half Note. The myriad of emotions contained within each gives off a remarkably striking and sincere vitality. You can almost taste the electricity in the air.

Not wholly devoted to any one region of the photographer’s career, The Work of Art does unfold along a musical stroke. That’s fitting. DeCarava’s musical photographs are among his best known. The darkened setting and the close quarters of the space give off the feel of a jazz club. This sidesteps the donnishness often engineered directly into larger institutional galleries. To further the point, a flat screen in the back of the museum shuffles through more images of jazzers while a playlist of their music quietly reverberates throughout, just discernible enough to augment the flow of the photography on display. That’s a touch of DeCarava too, the sounds exporting the chaotic riot of life into his photographs. As DeCarava’s wife, the art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava, wrote, “To experience darkness, we experience an intense awareness of the self.” Nothing could be more apparent at the Underground Museum’s presentation of her husband’s work.

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Graduation (1949)

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