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DeCarava's Photos Improvised The Music Of Life

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DeCarava's Photos Improvised The Music Of Life

Photography

DeCarava's Photos Improvised The Music Of Life

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

If you wanted to be taken seriously as a photographer in the 1950s, you usually snapped mountains and models - not your neighbors. Also might have helped to be white. But Roy DeCarava turned all of that on its head. He died this week at the age of 89. Claire O'Neill has this appreciation.

CLAIRE O'NEILL: A man sits quietly on a city stoop. Inside a row house, couples laugh and dance in a dimly lit kitchen. At a table, a little boy whispers something in his father's ear. This is Harlem, a mix of quiet, ordinary moments, everyday struggles, tiny triumphs.

Mr. ROY DECARAVA (Photographer): In '52 there weren't many images of just normal everyday people, particularly black people.

O'NEILL: Roy DeCarava made this case in 1952 when he applied for a Guggenheim fellowship, as he told NPR more than 30 years later. In his application, he wrote that he hoped to, quote, "show not the famous and the well-known, but the unknown and the unnamed, thus revealing the roots from which spring the greatness of human beings."

Mr. DECARAVA: There was this big hole. There were no black images of dignity, of beautiful black people. So I tried to fill it, but that's not what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do, I wanted to find within the black community itself, I was looking for humanity, I was looking for people. These are people. Before they're black, they're people. And this is what I'm concerned about.

O'NEILL: DeCarava got the fellowship, becoming the first black photographer to win a Guggenheim. He used the money to photograph his community.

Born in Harlem in 1919, the only child to a single Jamaican mother, Roy DeCarava had plenty of odd jobs before picking up a camera. He was a shoe shiner, a newspaper salesman and an ice hauler. But his artistic gifts eventually led him to art school.

He began as a painter, but it wasn't long before the lens replaced the brush. His first book of photographs was a collaboration with poet Langston Hughes called �The Sweet Flypaper of Life.� DeCarava was also drawn to music.

(Soundbite of music)

O'NEILL: His photography was like jazz: improvisational, democratic and lyrical.

Mr. DECARAVA: I improvise. I mean I - whatever's there, I use it, you know, with a C-sharp or a C or an E-sharp, I use it.

(Soundbite of music)

O'NEILL: DeCarava's reputation grew with his pictures of jazz musicians. He had an eye for people, an ear for music � and as jazz bassist Ron Carter told NPR in 1996�

Mr. RON CARTER (Jazz Bassist): I would say he sees the music, he sees the music.

O'NEILL: Roy 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. And he got America to see it too.

Claire O'Neill, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You'll find a gallery of Roy DeCarava's work in our photo blog, The Picture Show, at NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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