PRINT May 1996


WHATEVER ELSE IT GAINED in the years following World War II, by the ’50s New York had lost some of its vitality and innocence. In the photographic record, the physical look of the city changed little, but its mood was much altered. Though the city’s retail buzz and signage were jazzier, its spirit was sadder. There remained little trace of the excited leveling and strut that had galvanized the city in the ’40s. Looking back at vintage shots of wartime New York, one got the impression that everyone then, of whatever origin, was engaged in a huge enterprise that united them in expansive defense of their common values. Consider the photos of typical ’40s subjects, working-class people in the plazas and at Coney Island, open spaces where the crowded, multiethnic public was appreciated for its diversity. The almost partylike throngs captured in Lou Stoumen’s Times Square photographs display a collective high. Certainly, rough moments snapped by Weegee or Lisette Model remained in good supply, and Helen Levitt gave us undertones of solitude, particularly in Harlem. But wartime New Yorkers generally appear to us as gregarious citizen masses of the world, seen by democratic eyes. Then, gradually, this upbeat vision faded away.

In a cold-war atmosphere hagridden by fears of subversion within and cataclysm from abroad, the good nature and wholesome resolve that images once credited to ’40s New Yorkers were exhausted. If the era was smug in many ugly ways, it was also uneasy in its smugness. As a pop index of this mood swing, or rather, myth change of New York, compare the films On the Town, 1949, and Sweet Smell of Success, 1957. Instead of a libertarian power house, the city is portrayed as a heartless imperium and a grinder of souls. To have existed in the place at that time was to live in the megacapital of a superpower during the nuclear era. It’s little wonder that photographs captured a certain edginess.

To Robert Frank and William Klein, Manhattan was a city built up but unsettled, an overstimulated urban chaos where minorities certainly didn’t melt into each other. From their European perspectives, Frank and Klein couldn’t accommodate themselves to the scene of heartless action any more than they could dismiss it. No one saw our material plenitude with a more weary disdain than Frank; no one could make it yuckier with more style than Klein. In their work, it became next to impossible to distinguish personal from public space. Urban zones themselves were perceived as in discord with each other, while the music of faces was arrhythmic and out of tune with the surroundings. Similarly, the picturemaker emphasized the disparate makeup of the citizens, viewed within their separate tribes, and held them at a psychic distance. Gone was the compassion of the ’30s, when the lens called attention to the plight of others. Now it was the pictorial scruffiness of their cultures that mattered. Sketchy images shot by Sid Grossman, Sol Leiter, and Lou Faurer lightened the perception that we cannot share in the lives of these strangers, but added to it a note of pathos. Instead of moral critique, they offered pictorial lyric, often in bad weather or low light. New York was a city summed up in their viewfinders as a busy, indistinct wilderness of neon and glass reflections, fretted with querulous faces.

ROY DECARAVA’S METROPOLE was the same place as his colleagues’; but it feels otherwise, like a town that preceded and at the same time survives theirs. His photography from the late ’40s to the present is currently surveyed in a long-overdue MoMA retrospective curated by Peter Galassi. It evokes a separate New York, visualized with such authority as to propose another myth of the city, in some respects gentler, in others harsher, than the ones we know so well.

Unlike many street photographers, DeCarava remains alert to moments of tension concentrated in single forms. Where most photographers of the time tended to grab at scenes just as energy was discharged at scattered points in the urban surround, DeCarava sites silhouetted or sculpted bodies or weighted objects in graphic counterpoint. They are immobilized, or they move with a solemn gait, all the more as they are slotted into close-fitted frames. Finally, the capricious poise glimpsed by New York street shooters contrasts with his reflectiveness, in which an accent of portrait or still life may at any time be stressed in lieu of action, or rather, is visualized as a state into which action is often absorbed.

DeCarava’s sense of time is special. We can date many expressive images of New York because of the topical information on all levels that flows through them. The New York captured by the ’50s photographers I cited would not be the raucous spectacle it is without the media—marquees, newspapers, consumer styles—shown everywhere at work, organizing nothing less than the consciousness of the 20th century. But the changes in signs and communications, so central to the photographic imagery of Manhattan, are at best peripheral to the urban universe DeCarava describes. He is one of the few major photographers of a Gotham where these familiar public codes seem banned from the setting so as not to distract from a more elemental drama.

As a result, photos taken by DeCarava in the late ’40s can look as nonchalantly recent as ones snapped last year, and vice versa. Despite the variety of subjects and moods they describe, they have no single or successive periods—they seem somehow “above” period. The MoMA retrospective shows that DeCarava does not “develop,” if by development is meant a learning process and a record of stylistic change. From the first he was in such poetic control that his chief goal was to expand his repertoire. As for the continuum of human activity in his work, it is seen entirely from the viewpoint of his actors—that is, from the inside. When the darkened city makes its appearance in facades, subways, bars, restaurants, and streets, it is a function of his subjects’ inwardness, or of his own. The city exists as a shadowy place seemingly removed from the developments of history.

Even when they depicted people who were estranged within those developments, New York street photographers took the modernity of the city as their province. If these artists imagined themselves to be interlopers and passing voyeurs who chase after cryptic scraps of meaning, it was modern of them to think so, modern as only Manhattan could have taught them to be. Here was a culture of accelerated change that existed as a hopeful yet fearful prospect. Their ambivalence as they recorded change in the obscured social weather, from shifting places, was a sensitive expression of the culture in which they found themselves. DeCarava’s equally modern work, by contrast, comes to us through his affirmation of stable communities in his own black culture. Of all the New York photographers of his generation, he is the one most closely identified with his subjects, a fact that generates exceptional tones of feeling throughout his work.

We are rarely invited into scenes like DeCarava’s—city scenes, after all—treated with such intimacy and reserve. The closeness implies his ongoing familiarity with and attachment to the milieu, mostly Harlem. The reserve perhaps stems from his temperament, as it crafts a way to present his community to the world at large. Aside from a few jam sessions and some family interiors, where couples dance slowly around the kitchen table, his photos rarely contain more than two figures and frequently involve only one. The simplicity of the scenes and the reduced cast might have suggested a minimal theater, except that his work is so warm-blooded. Lovers kiss or talk in the twilight. A combo rehearses in the back room. DeCarava’s wife sings; children are held by their parents. People are usually with each other, not just side by side or hanging around unconnected. Even single subjects are with themselves, in touch with the lived moment. Whether it is the gravity of work—as, for example, in the garment district—or play, the narrative core of this imagery is sociality and purpose within a restricted space.

But a lens that frequently upends or flattens that space makes the viewer’s relation to the scene ambiguous. Our proximity to the figures is an illusion derived from structural tightening, not an index of DeCarava’s presence within their personal territory. In exchange for the privilege of seeming to eavesdrop on his characters, we are enclosed or even shut off with them in a space sufficient only for breathing, and not for the spreading of wings.

Rarely do we find an optical device used so intelligently and also politically to hint of oppression. But DeCarava nevertheless operates within a larger formal plan—an American, native-grain formalism, where an empirical approach and an ineffable effect seem almost to be coefficients of each other. I think of Stieglitz’s portraits, or Paul Strand in general, and Edward Hopper. Harry Callahan, whose work DeCarava publicly supported, comes to mind, and Dorothea Lange, along with her one-time assistant Ralph Gibson. These artists have an idea of the figure, both resistant to and immersed within its space. The presence of this figure is implicitly heroic. At the same time, the face seems to reflect an accumulation of experience and memory held in the singular instant of exposure. And this is a melancholy resonance. All these imagemakers emphasize constant states and enduring symbolic forms in their work. When they miss the mark, they fabricate emblems only; when they’re on, they create living archetypes. With his deepened tones, DeCarava lays claim to this same heritage, but he is the first photographer to do so by applying an insistent sense of it to city dynamics, and, of course, to the lot of black Americans. Always found rather than directed, a kind of stoic melancholy suffuses the features of his Billie Holiday, Robert Blackburn, or Count Basie and Lena Horne, even when they smile—or rather, particularly when they smile. But the nameless or ordinary citizens in his photos have this quality, too.

DeCarava’s sensibility first came to public notice in his 1955 book collaboration with Langston Hughes, The Sweet Flypaper of Life. The two were sympathetic but not really congruent artists in their work together. To be sure, a common interest runs through the account both give of black family life, as it unfolds generationally. In its strengths and problems, the life of the entire community is centered by the relations of parents, children, and grandchildren. Hughes’ narrator is a loving matriarch from South Carolina, whose parents could have remembered slavery, and who, at the end of her life in New York, called by the messenger of the Lord, replies, “I am not prepared to go. I might be a little sick, but as yet I ain’t no ways tired. . . . For one thing, . . . I want to stay here and see what this integration the Supreme Court has done decreed is going to be like.” There follows her bewildered remembrance of many changes in outlook and style effected by the city on her offspring and theirs: “changes” that DeCarava’s photographs do not at all illustrate but record as states of being.

In asking—certainly not without hope—what the world is coming to, Hughes’ text stands in contrast to DeCarava’s imagery, where the world is given as an eternal round of small pleasures and probably larger sorrows. The poet issues from quite an older generation than the photographer. In verbal style, The Sweet Flypaper of Life is folksy, like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and certainly nostalgic, but its visual style has a refinement that whispers almost of fatality. Though he views them with obvious pride and affection, DeCarava’s people are more aware than Hughes’ of their limited possibilities within society’s constraints. One character, for instance, is said by the writer to be “crazy about music. Can tell you every horn that ever blowed on every juke box.” But the accompanying picture shows the listener, downcast face in hand, jukebox or no. One senses the poet adjusting to the communitarian idealism of the photographs, but disregarding their atmospherics. Who knows how the responsive script and given images of this book, from what pool of alternatives, were pulled together? It was nevertheless a process whose very miscues and conflicts evolved into a poignant story.

What stands out about DeCarava’s interiors is the way light from some depth within them barely glows on dark skin. Rarely does there seem enough wattage to illuminate things, yet it’s the mystery of the scene rather than its poverty that impresses. Laughter in the gloom is like “Singin in the Rain”; it has a lovely dissonance to it. DeCarava’s indistinct figures, in their tenebrous rooms, stimulate the sense of touch before they are truly seen. Musicmaking is a recurrent subject for this photographer who likes musicians, who himself plays an instrument, and who thinks that his own work, like theirs, is a form of serious improvisation. When these dim places would seem to have suggested only an effect of silence, one can almost fancy hearing the plaint of the sax. Such an instrument plays a role in DeCarava’s art analogous to the accordion in Robert Doisneau’s. More than just subject matter, the musical innuendo contributes to an undertow of synesthesia, a cross-referencing of the senses. Didn’t DeCarava once plan a book including many of his jazz photos, to be called The Sound I Saw? For that matter, the appeal to the eye in his pictures is so haptic that a viewer might speak of The Tones I Touched.

Working within microvalues in a dark range on low-contrast paper, DeCarava finds his target. The eye, acclimated to this obscure scheme of things over a series of frames, gradually perceives that focus remains and that time is dilated. By then, one is invested in the picture; one imagines the shade as a nutrient or benevolent zone for emergent forms. Which is just as well. For DeCarava’s given us a handful of pictures without human figures, in this vein, where the content is quite harrowing: Window and Stove, 1951, Hotel, 1962, and, most extreme of all, Hallway, 1953. The last squeezes us along the corridor of a dingy walk-up, with a naked bulb that barely lights the filthy tiled floor and two-toned greasy walls. Unlike the musicality of his photos with human figures, this one has no score. As it ushers us into a space worthy of Sartre but also typical of a Harlem flat, the photograph says “Be my guest.” DeCarava’s empty interiors and still-lifes of the time often have an almost sacramental quality. The tableaux have been hushed in the luminous shade, so as to confront us with the immediacy of what is there. It is a view of meager and homely objects: a ketchup bottle, hangers, restaurant booths. One might be tempted to say they are visualized without any social intervention, but DeCarava’s artistic reckoning with them implies a social knowledge that is bitter in spite of its understatement. For all its poetry, Hallway is the least sublimated of DeCarava’s images. It speaks for black experience, certainly. But it speaks also of the city, of New York.