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Black-And-White Black America

In the 1950's, photography was hardly considered art. If you wanted to be taken seriously as a photographer, you snapped mountains and models — not your neighbors. It also helped to be white. But Roy DeCarava, turned all of that on its head. He died this week at the age of 89. Listen to the NPR story, or this Fresh Air interview.

DeCarava was born in Harlem in 1919 to a single Jamaican mother. He had plenty of odd jobs before he picked up a camera. He was a shoe shiner, a newspaper salesman and an ice hauler. But his natural artistic gifts eventually led him to art school, where he began as a painter. It wasn't long before the lens replaced the brush.

In 1952, DeCarava applied for the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. He was the first black photographer to receive the grant, and he used it to photograph Harlem. The photos from this period eventually became the contents of a book. The Sweet Flypaper Of Life was made in collaboration with Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes. It showed Harlem as a mix of quiet ordinary moments, everyday struggles and tiny triumphs.

DeCarava continued to photograph throughout his life, most notably the New York jazz scene. He captured all the greats; the musical genre suited his improvisational style and democratic eye. But the most important thing to DeCarava was that the old woman next door deserved a photograph just as much as John Coltrane. The black man on the stoop merited a frame as much as the white supermodel.

According to Ron Carter, legendary jazz bassist, DeCarava had a sixth sense. "My impression of his photographs is that he sees the music," Carter said in an NPR interview. DeCarava saw the music in jazz performances — but also in kids playing in the street, in a young woman staring out her window, in men on park benches. He saw the music and the beauty in black Harlem, and he showed that face to America.

Watch this narrated video of DeCarava's work:

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