Critics’ Picks

Roy DeCarava, Four bassists, 1965, gelatin silver print, 16 x 20".

Roy DeCarava, Four bassists, 1965, gelatin silver print, 16 x 20".

Los Angeles

Roy DeCarava

The Underground Museum
3508 W. Washington Blvd
March 30–June 30, 2019

“I want to photograph Harlem through the Negro people,” Roy DeCarava wrote in 1952. “I want to show the strength, the wisdom, the dignity.” The late artist’s exhibition at the Underground Museum (curated by his daughter, Wendy DeCarava) displays nearly fifty of his pictures taken after World War II through the turn of the century, largely in his New York neighborhood. In his dedication to representing an “infinite palette of grays,” DeCarava did not use a mechanical flash, preferring instead to convey the essence of who and what he saw, in their own light. As such, his photographs are especially attentive to gestures, tones, and shapes. The images quietly document people as they walk, hold hands, sit at the kitchen table, attend a protest, pick up trash, sing. Two standout images are Girl fixing hair (Ellen), 1952, which depicts an elegant young black woman, and Man with two shovels, 1959, which shows an older person holding a shovel in each hand. His face is nearly obscured, but his hands are illuminated. DeCarava maintains this man’s privacy while rendering the dignity of his labor.

The title of the show, “The Work of Art,” signifies both DeCarava's disciplined practice—his painterly attention to details, his poetic sense of composition—and the potential for art to do things. DeCarava often used his work to document other types of labor: See Woman speaking, street corner, 1950; Four bassists, 1965; Two men working and statue, Washington, D.C., 1975; and, most strikingly, Elvin Jones, 1961. In the latter, with sweat beading gently on his face, head tilted toward the music, eyes nearly closed, the unparalleled jazz drummer is pictured in the middle of his “work of art”—a joyous, other-worldly rapture that transcends the boundaries of language.