Roy DeCarava: The Sounds He Saw

The jazz photographer's masterwork has been unveiled at last, nearly 60 years after it was created

Sarah Vaughan, 1956 (photo: Roy DeCarava)
Sarah Vaughan, 1956 (photo: Roy DeCarava)

“I had a reporter call me from Paris,” Turner DeCarava said via phone, “and he was so puzzled, almost to the point of being hurt, that there are no names given for the musicians who are depicted. I had to explain that this was a deliberate choice on Roy’s part. I said, ‘When you realized there were no names, what did you do?’ And he said, ‘Well, I called a friend of mine and I asked him for help.’ And I said, ‘Right. You started a conversation and the two of you talked, and then you talked to others, and you found the names, you found the history. People encode things in their memory this way and Roy wanted to tap into that.’”

Clytus notes that DeCarava was the first black photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1952. In 1955 he published The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a book of photography and text made in collaboration with Langston Hughes (reprinted by First Print Press in 2018). A professor at Hunter College from 1975 until his death in 2009, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2006. The Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted an exhibition of his work in 1996; a number of the photographs from the sound i saw appeared in a 280-page catalog of the exhibition titled Roy DeCarava: A Retrospective. There was one previous attempt to bring the sound i saw to the public, in 2001, but according to Turner DeCarava the book was not distributed.

Though DeCarava became celebrated as a fine art photographer, Clytus recounts that there was ambivalence early on toward his work on the part of editors, curators, and critics—the white establishment of the time. “[T]he radical painterly aesthetic,” he writes, “the tonal qualities of DeCarava’s ‘black’ images and his subtle vision were often fundamentally at odds with the conventions of mid-century photography.” The fact that the sound i saw never found a publisher should be viewed in this light, Clytus suggests, and it makes the book’s belated arrival all the more significant.

David R. Adler

David R. Adler writes about jazz and assorted topics. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, NPR Music, WBGO.org, The Philadelphia InquirerThe Village Voice, DownBeat, Time Out New York, and many other publications. From 2010-2017 he taught jazz history at the Aaron Copland School of Music (Queens College-CUNY). In summer 2017, after 30 years in New York (apart from two in Philadelphia), David relocated with his family to Athens, Georgia. There he continues to write about music and perform solo as a guitarist/vocalist.